Disclaimer: Some concepts and characters in this story belong to ABC TV, and no, ABC TV has no idea I'm writing naughty stuff about their characters. They didn't give me permission. I'm just borrowing them, in any case. Oh yeah. This story is just CHOCK full of SEX! EEK! Oh my! (*fan* *fan*) So, if you're hung up and can't handle reading about people (m/f, for my slashfen friends) having sex, or you're under 18 and don't have parental permission, DON'T READ IT!!
I apologize to my faithful readers, I have succumbed to the vice of wanting to put plot in my erotica again. :-) Thanks to my Beta Readers, Tere Matthews, Julia Kosatka, Judi Hardin, Barb Phillips and Suzanne Vollmer for finding all the holes for me to fix. :-) -- Kellie Matthews
Sloan sat in her apartment, staring at the broken door, and shaking. She didn't want to believe it, but she had to believe it. They'd taken Tom. At first she had assumed the Dominants were behind the abduction, but after having gone to the lab and found it closed she was now fairly sure that it wasn't them after all. The Dominants wouldn't have been able to do that, that order had to have come from Walter's shadowy superiors. And, she was sure the two incidents had to be related. The timing was just too close for coincidence.
She felt adrift, all her lifelines were gone-- Ed was in the hospital, recovering from the tranquilizer Tom's captors had used on him. Turned out he was allergic to the damned stuff, and by the time she got up to her apartment he'd been in anaphylactic shock. The ambulance had barely arrived in time. Now Walter and Ray were missing. She had called Walter to see if he knew what was up, but he wasn't answering at any of his numbers. She'd tried calling Ray, and his wife answered at home, sounding worried and afraid. A few careful questions had elicited the fact that she hadn't seen Ray since early the previous morning. Sloan was scared. Very scared.
Noise in the hallway outside her door made her tense, suddenly terrified that they'd come back for her, but the knock that came a moment later reassured her. Ninja-commandos wouldn't knock, she realized, thinking about the black-clad men who had stolen Tom. For a moment she was amused by her own nervousness, then she hurried to the door, hoping it was Walter or Ray. Halfway there she realized it wouldn't be. They couldn't get in the building without buzzing her first . . . or could they? Her 'secure' building suddenly seemed a lot less so.
Cautiously she looked out the peephole to see a black man in his thirties holding a tool box in one hand, the other poised to knock again. She relaxed slightly, and opened the door.
"Can I help you?"
When his eyes met hers, she couldn't help but notice how striking they were. They reminded her of someone else's eyes, but she couldn't quite put her finger on whose. Shaven-headed, with a carefully trimmed van-dyke beard which made him look almost sinister, the man was also quite tall and powerfully built, though he dressed to minimize that impression. He gestured toward the toolbox in his hand.
"Mr. Lopez sent me to fix your door."
His voice was pleasant and unaccented. Sloan thought he looked too intelligent to be a maintenance-man. Maybe he was putting himself through college by doing odd-jobs. She stepped back and let him in. He put the toolbox down and examined the door, glanced around at the mess the ninjas had made of her studio apartment, and looked at her, eyebrows lifted.
"Wild party?" he queried drily.
"Burglars," she offered weakly. She couldn't exactly tell him a bunch of ninjas were to blame.
He nodded wordlessly and Sloan watched perplexed, as reached into his pocket and took out a small object that looked rather like a TV remote control. Holding it away from his body, he slowly turned in a circle. She drew breath to speak, but he put a finger to his lips and for some reason she complied, wondering what she was getting herself into.
Should she be screaming, about now? The irony of the fact that she wasn't in hysterics wasn't lost on her. Lately her life had become so weird that events like this were commonplace. She waited patiently, sensing no threat. Tom would probably be furious with her for relying on her 'intuition' again, but what else did she have? Her throat tightened as she thought of Tom, and she had to swallow down the lump that thickened her throat as she fought back tears.
A small light on the device turned red and he frowned, then walked over to the standing lamp next to her sofa. He slid his fingers under the edge of the shade, and withdrew a small object, placed it on the floor and stepped on it, hard. The light on the device in his hand turned green. He did another scan of the premises, and repeated the procedure with something from underneath her phone, then a final scan appeared to satisfy him and he nodded, turning toward her.
"We can speak now, at least until they figure out their bugs are dead and get a parabolic microphone set up. My name is Mark, Dr. Attwood asked me to speak with you."
His use of a single name told her what he was, and she swallowed hard and stepped back.
"What have you done with him? Where is he? Where's Ray? Are they okay?"
He looked faintly amused. "Relax, Dr. Parker, I don't know where Dr. Attwood or Mr. Peterson are at this exact moment, but I do know how to contact them, and that they're currently well. However, since Dr. Attwood's superiors have proven less than trustworthy, he and Mr. Peterson are keeping out of sight until things are less volatile."
Sloan studied him closely, trying to feel whether or not he was telling the truth. "You're not holding them prisoner? And what do you mean, Walter's superiors aren't trustworthy?"
Mark looked at her solemnly. "To answer your questions in order, no, we're not holding them, their actions are completely voluntary. As for the other, I'm a member of a faction which believes in coexistence, not genocide. We attempted to engineer a truce, and acting in good faith brought our own leader to the meeting. Dr. Attwood was sent to represent your people."
"Walter? Not the Bit . . . I mean, his superior?"
Mark nodded. "We now realize that Dr. Attwood was chosen because, being ignorant of their true plans and sincerely interested in peace, he would be able to fool our empathic senses. However, when we arrived at the meeting, we were ambushed by gunmen who didn't care if they took out both sides."
"Ambushed! Was anyone hurt?"
A fleeting expression of pain passed across Mark's face, and he nodded. "Our leader was killed, as was his driver. I managed to escape, as did Dr. Attwood, with Mr. Peterson's help."
Sloan stared at him, stunned. "I don't understand, why would our people want to kill Ray and Walter? Or your leader, for that matter? A truce is exactly what we've needed!"
Mark looked at her in a way that made her feel decidedly stupid. "To discredit us, of course. If they could make it appear to humans that we were responsible, it would be just one more mark against us. And, they knew it would have the added effect of eliminating the leader of our peace coalition, and turning many more of us against the idea of peaceful cooperation. Unfortunately we were never a large faction, and now that Dr. Attwood's superiors have decided to provoke open warfare between your people and ours, the cause of coexistence will become even less popular."
Sloan gaped as his words sank in. "Open warfare? Oh my God!" Sloan shook her head as pieces of the puzzle started to fall into place. She clenched her fists. "They used us. They used us to start their god-damned war!"
Mark nodded. "Exactly. That press conference about our success in cloning techniques was the catalyst they needed."
"And now they don't need us any more so they shut down the lab. But then, why take Tom?"
Mark looked thoughtful. "I can think of several reasons. Whether or not they're correct remains to be seen."
Sloan caught her breath as one potential occurred to her. She looked at Mark. "I guess since Lewis . . . died, they've been without a test subject for their experiments. Tom would have been a convenient target for them."
Sloan shivered, and rubbed her arms, as if that could rid her of the sudden chill she felt. Test subject. Thinking of what Tom had allowed Ed to do to him, she wondered if they were any better than Tom's captors, testing something like that on him? It could have killed him, almost had, and still might. The gene-therapy had apparently failed, Tom had been reverting to Dominant, and there was a chance things might go even more wrong. Even if nothing worse happened, once the reversion was complete, he would once more be a useful lab-rat for the Bitch, as Sloan thought of Walter's superior.
"That's one possibility." Mark acknowledged. "There are others."
"Tom was a proponent of coexistence for us, much as you are for your own kind. In some ways he was quite important, because he was one of the Chosen."
Sloan frowned. "He was what?"
Mark looked startled. "You didn't know? It was planned that Tom would someday become one of our leaders. That's why his decisions on this matter were so closely watched."
Sloan stared at him, trying to wrap her mind around that. "One of your leaders? He never said . . ." She shut up abruptly. Mark didn't need to know that Tom had kept secrets from her. If he had. Maybe it just hadn't occurred to him to tell her. Sometimes he had odd ideas about the relative importance of things.
Mark seemed not to have noticed her slip and went on, unfazed. "So, by removing him, they removed an important potential threat to their campaign. In fact, that's why Dr. Attwood sent me to see you. He feels that you should probably go underground for the time being," Mark said quietly. "You may become a target for both sides, with things in flux as they are. You can take a few minutes to pack some of your things, then I'll take you to a safehouse and we can make arrangements for your protection from there."
Sloan shook off the feeling of dread engendered by him talking about Tom in the past tense and thought sourly that if Walter was so concerned about her, he should have warned her earlier. Like before the ninjas broke in and took Tom. No, going into hiding wasn't an option. She shook her head. "I can't do that. I have to help Tom."
Mark tilted his head slightly to one side, regarding her with a quizzical look that reminded her eerily of both Lewis and Tom. Was it a Dominant trait?
"That's probably not a good idea," he said after a moment. "Perhaps you should talk to Dr. Attwood before making any decisions."
Sloan shrugged. "I'll have to take that risk. I can't just leave him in their hands and not even try to help him."
He studied her again, then shrugged. "It's your decision. If you change your mind, call this number and leave a message with some way for me to contact you." He took a business card out of his pocket and held it out to her. She took it, it looked ordinary enough, with the name 'Mark Jackson' printed on it, and below that the words 'household repairs' and a phone number. No one would think twice about it if they found it, even in plain sight. She smiled.
"Thanks," he said, smiling back at her. "We got lucky with that broken door. Speaking of which, I need to get that done or they'll be suspicious." He turned away and opened the tool chest.
"You're really going to fix my door?" she asked incredulously.
Mark nodded, and Sloan watched for a moment as he drew on a pair of work gloves, opened her door and walked out into the hallway to pick up several long pieces of molding, and lathe. Leaning them against the wall, he picked up a clawhammer and went to pry the ruined molding away from the door frame. She shook her head, laughing incredulously at the sight of a Homo Dominant doing 'This Old House.'
"I can't believe you're actually fixing my door!"
Mark turned and looked at her, amusement in his gaze. "It's my job, ma'am."
Sloan started to reply, but he held a finger up to his lips. She frowned and lifted her eyebrows in query. For answer he tapped his watch and pointed toward the window. She understood. He was telling her that their audience had probably had time to rig a new system. Knowing that someone was probably listening in, she played to the audience.
"Well, this has to be about the quickest the landlord ever got around to a repair since I moved in! I guess it pays to have things broken loudly and publically. Can I get you anything? Some coffee? A soda?"
He shook his head, looking rather as if she'd offered him a nice big glass of antifreeze. "No, thanks, but a glass of water would be nice."
She went into the kitchen and got him a glass of water. He took off the gloves and accepted the glass, draining it quickly. Handing the empty glass back to her, he frowned suddenly and made a wiping motion with his hands. It took her a moment, but then Sloan realized he didn't want his fingerprints to be available to anyone who might come looking. She wondered uncomfortably how often her apartment might have been searched in the past without her knowledge.
Taking the glass to the sink, she washed it carefully and put it on the dish-rack to dry, then went and sat on the sofa to watch him work. Unconsciously she found herself holding the blanket that Tom had been using at night until he had begun sharing her bed. Somehow it was comforting, it made her feel his presence a little. She blinked back tears and tried to find home repair interesting. It occurred to her suddenly to wonder just how Mark had known that Tom had been kidnapped. Frustratingly, she couldn't ask, not with someone listening in. Mark finished refurbishing the doorframe with quick efficiency, then replaced the door's knob and lock mechanism. That done, he moved over to where she sat, and handed her a new set of keys.
"There you go, ma'am. All finished."
"Thanks," she looked at the keys, then back at him. "Um, what do I owe you?"
She saw his lips twitch as he almost smiled, then he shook his head. "Nothing, the super paid me."
"That cheapskate? Ha! At least let me give you something for coming so promptly and doing such a nice job." She dug in her purse and got out a twenty, trying to hand it to him as she played her role to the hilt. He put his hands up, refusing the money, shaking his head and looking puzzled. Sloan rolled her eyes. No maintenance guy would ever turn down a tip. She grabbed his hand and stuffed the bill in it.
"Thank you again. I feel much safer now, with that door fixed."
Mark looked at the bill, at her, and she saw understanding light his eyes as he realized she was trying to preserve his cover. He smiled. "Thank you, ma'am. I appreciate it."
He gathered his tools, and the broken molding, and left. Sloan closed and locked the door behind him and sighed. It would be nice if he'd left that remote-control thing behind so she could see if she was being spied on. Thankfully whoever was listening in on her couldn't read her mind.
Sloan went to the stove and put water on to heat, then got out a mug and a tea-bag. She wasn't really thirsty, but it gave her something to do besides pace, and she figured the caffeine couldn't hurt. She had no illusions that finding and rescuing Tom was going to be easy. In reality, she didn't even have the slightest idea where to start. Her only real clue was the fact that The Bitch was probably responsible for his abduction. Unfortunately since Walter was on the outs with the woman, Sloan had lost her only potential source of information about Tom.
Or had she? The Dominants must have a pretty effective spy network. After all, Mark had already known that Tom had been taken. Though it had probably been more effective when Lewis had been heading it, clearly it was still good enough to be useful. She took out Mark's card and looked at it, reaching for the phone, then stopping herself. Stupid. They were listening. Or someone was, at any rate. She would have to go out and use a payphone or something. She stood up and grabbed her purse, then stopped in her tracks. Mark had referred to Tom in the past tense. Did that mean . . .
No. She refused that thought. If he had known for certain that Tom was dead, Mark would have told her, if for no other reason than to keep her from going after him. No, there was still a chance, a good one, that Tom was alive. That was all she needed to know. But now that she thought about it, she realized that going after him alone would be worse than useless. She wasn't equipped for anything like this, she was a scientist, not a marine. She needed someone with the skills she lacked, someone who could do all those military-ish things like infiltrate and fight and rescue, someone who wouldn't be deterred by anything. She needed someone like . . . Lewis.
As soon as she thought it, Sloan knew exactly what she had to do. There were obstacles, of course. First, she wasn't entirely sure he was alive. Second, even if he was alive, she had no idea if he would even be willing to help her. His agenda was as impenetrable as his psyche. As if those things weren't enough to put her off, there was the thought that he might find her presence a threat to Carlie or the babies . . . Sloan shivered. She didn't even want to think about what he might do then. She could hardly believe she was even considering this, but she had to try; she had no choice.
Sloan put down her purse and picked up her phone, dialing. She didn't care if the listeners overheard this, she even wanted them to. The number connected and was picked up on the third ring.
The familiar voice was too much for her all the sudden, and she found herself crying. Clearing her throat, she answered. "Hi, mom."
Her mother was too sharp for that, though. "Sloan? Are you okay? What's wrong baby?"
The tears fell harder at that, of course. Sloan dashed the back of one hand across her face and spoke again. "I'm okay, mom, but things aren't very good for me right now. I, um, I was wondering if you would mind if I came up for a little while?" Her voice broke on the last word and strangely, she hoped that whoever was listening had noticed. It would help convince them she was losing it. She wasn't, of course, but it wouldn't hurt them to think that.
"Of course not, honey, you know you're always welcome. But what's wrong?"
"Well, among other things, I think I'm out of a job, but I'd rather not talk about it on the phone. I'll tell you everything when I get there."
Her mother was quiet for a moment, Sloan knew from long experience that she was trying very hard not to pry, then she sighed. "I understand, Sloan. Come on up anytime. Are you flying or driving?"
"Flying." Sloan answered almost without thinking. It was the fastest way.
"Then I'll be at the airport to pick you up, no matter when you get in."
Sloan closed her eyes, letting her mother's voice conjure a familiar feeling of safety around her. It was very nice, even if it was an illusion. "Thanks, mom. You're the best."
Her mother laughed. "Of course I am. I'm your mother."
Sloan laughed at the corny old line that was her mother's standard reply to that comment, and felt oddly lighter. "Gotta go call the airlines. I'll call you back with the flight information as soon as I have it." She paused a moment, and then spoke more softly. "Mom, I love you."
"Love you too, baby."
Sloan smiled as she hung up, thinking that not long ago she would have been irritated at being called 'baby.' Now, somehow, she didn't mind. She grabbed out the Yellow Pages and pulled her credit cards out of her purse, grateful for small favors. The banks wouldn't have had time to figure out she was unemployed yet.
Tom lay on his side in an almost fetal curl. It was one of the few comfortable postures his surroundings afforded him. Of course, pretty soon whoever was watching the monitors this shift would notice and come around to poke at him with one of those damned electric cattle prods and make him move. They never let him stay comfortable for long. Still, things could be worse. In fact, they had been worse, when they'd first brought him in.
Between the tranquilizer, and the residual effects of Ed's gene-therapy experiment, he'd been nearly out of his mind, terrified past rationality until the fever and the sedative wore off, leaving him lucid again. Though at the time the isolation had been excruciating, now he was glad that they'd left him alone for those first few hours.
Had they been observing him closely they might have realized that by recreating those circumstances they would have a far greater chance of breaking him quickly. If they had any idea how difficult sensory deprivation was for him, they would be using it even more than they already were. Fortunately the camera which sent video of his activities to some remote viewing station had not been set up until his second day in captivity, by which time he'd been back in control of himself.
Tom reviewed what he knew about his situation. He was not being held by fellow Dominants, of that he was certain. These were humans. So far they had not given him any idea as to why he was being held. He had to admit to some confusion. He had been cooperative with them, so why would they need to hold him here? It made no sense, which in turn implied a change in circumstances.
Tom had not seen Sloan, Ed, Ray, or Walter since he'd been taken. He had confused memories of his captors drugging Ed as well as himself, of seeing Sloan's horror-struck face as they pushed him into a vehicle. Unless his empathic abilities had been totally subverted by the gene-therapy, which he doubted since they had been working just fine before that, neither Ed or Sloan had known what was happening. He was not so sanguine about Attwood. Sloan and Ed had both complained about him being out of touch. He might have known what was about to happen and made himself scarce before the proverbial shit hit the fan.
Clearly, a shift in power and politics had taken place, from one that favored Attwood's slow, scientific process of discovery and Sloan's preference for coexistence, to one more radical. He suspected military or paramilitary involvement, because of the nature of his abduction, and because he was being held in a place which spoke of someone familiar with many facets of war, from the physical to the psychological. In Southeast Asia, such 'tiger cages' had often been used for prisoners of war, especially those whom the people in charge wished to break.
Unfortunately, none of his intellectual exercises helped him deal with the reality of his situation. Cold, half-naked, unable to sit or stand comfortably, given food and water only at his captor's whims. He wasn't even able to relieve himself except on the rare occasions in which they let him out and gave him access to lavatory facilities, under armed guard the entire time. He wondered if they had done this to Lewis when they'd had him. If so, he began to understand how his mentor might have changed, as Sloan asserted that he had. Even a mind and body trained to resist stressful circumstances couldn't hold out forever. Anyone could be broken, eventually. Anyone.
Lewis quietly closed the door to the nursery, and turned and padded down the stairs, looking for Carlie. She'd been broadcasting wickedly erotic hints at him for most of the morning, focusing her teases precisely, so they didn't impinge on the babies. She was getting very good at that. Too good. It had been incredibly difficult to concentrate on the task of getting his offspring down for their nap with her doing that. He stopped for a moment at the bottom of the stairs to locate her, and moved toward her study, stalking her, but shielding so she wouldn't sense him coming.
Stopping at the door, he looked in, finding Carlie sitting at her desk poring over a textbook for one of the correspondence courses she was taking. A pencil held her hair up out of her face in a loose chignon, leaving the back of her neck exposed, tempting. Lewis itched to taste it, to drag his teeth lightly across it, and feel her shiver. He'd learned that she had just as many erogenous areas on her back as she did on her front, which made her incredibly easy to arouse.
Of course, at the moment, he didn't think he would need to do much of that, not with the teasing she'd been putting him through. He inhaled slowly, tasting the air and her scent on it. He smiled slowly. No, not much at all. His eyes confirmed what his nose had told him. He could see the warm bloom of reds and oranges in the aura around her body, knew her temperature was slightly elevated, and knew why, as well. He eased into the room silently, both irritated and pleased that he could sneak up on her like this. Irritated because it meant she was still far too innocent for his liking, pleased that her vulnerability left her open to him. He lowered his hands to her shoulders, gently.
Carlie jumped and let out a tiny shriek of surprise. As soon as her 'startle' reflex had been completed, he bent his mouth to her neck, letting her feel his teeth against her skin in a way she'd once compared to a mating tomcat. He liked the possessive way it made him feel, and she did too, judging by the shudder of sensual delight that went through her. He lifted a little, using his tongue to trace the line of her spine, and she moaned arching, reaching a hand back to stroke his hair. He let his hands slide down her shoulders to cup her breasts, feeling the hard thrust of her nipples beneath the soft, russet and black printed fabric of her dress.
Funny, he had once considered dresses to be impractical. Now he wondered why he had ever thought that. They were extremely practical, for some things. Especially when worn with nothing beneath them, as Carlie was wont to do around the house. He teased her nipples with his fingers until she was panting, then he straightened, turning her chair so she faced him, and went to his knees in front of her. She watched through half-closed eyes, her lips parted, her body tense with expectation. He eased the hem of her dress upward, noting how she shifted her legs apart slightly in anticipation.
Her scent strengthened, the hot, earthy scent of an aroused female. His female. He remembered how long she'd teased him, and considered returning the favor. He got her dress up to the tops of her long, sleek thighs, then stopped and sat back, studying her, taking in the taut peaks of her nipples, the way her stomach moved with the rapidity of her breathing, the way her lips were parted, and moist. No. He didn't want to tease her. That would involve waiting. He was tired of waiting.
In one effortless move he picked her up out of the chair and headed for the stairs. He didn't want to play in the office with her half-clothed. He wanted her on their bed, comfortable, naked and fully accessible. She curved her arms around his neck, holding on, and the flooding surge of her excitement heightened markedly. Gaining their bedroom, he placed her on the bed and set about unfastening each of the long line of buttons that closed her only garment. She reached to help, and he caught her hands, moving them to her sides, shaking his head in negation.
Her mouth curved a little, and Lewis wondered briefly what amused her, but then the slow exposure of her pale amber skin distracted him from that. He finished opening the last of the buttons and spread apart the dress, slipping the short sleeves halfway down toward her elbows, effectively trapping her arms at her sides. He stroked one hand down the center of her body, starting at her throat, feeling her silky skin beneath his palm as he moved it slowly down past her breasts, her ribs, her navel, over the slight curve of her belly, finally coming to rest on the dark thatch between her thighs.
Her arms might be trapped, but her legs weren't. Carlie shifted her thighs apart, and lifted her hips, pressing her mons into his palm, her invitation clear. Lewis slid one finger into the hot, wet cleft of her sex, stroking her lightly, feeling the lightning-pulse of her pleasure in himself. Lifting his hand, he stood and quickly removed his own clothing and joined her on the bed. Lounging beside her, he stroked her mouth with a fingertip, then leaned in to kiss her. She kissed back, her tongue tasting him, her mouth desperate for his. He drew back, then kissed her throat, her ear, and touched a finger to one of her nipples.
"How do you want me?" He whispered against her ear.
She shivered, and the erotic pang that went through her was delicious. It took her a moment to form the words. "Like you started," she managed, finally, her voice throaty and hot.
Like he started. He thought for a moment, and understood. Carefully he tugged her dress free of first one arm, then the other, then he put his hand against her hip and shoulder, and urged her over onto her belly. She pillowed her head on her arms, and spread her thighs wide for him, her whole body taut with excitement. Ordinarily he'd take more time to rouse her, to make sure she was ready for him, but he knew she didn't need that now. Whatever fantasies had fueled her teasing earlier had already prepared her. He didn't have to touch her to know she was wet, her body fully receptive. He could smell it on her. The scent made him ache.
Kneeling between her legs, he braced his arms on either side of her and slid down until his cock was against the warm softness between her legs. She moaned, arching back against him. He stroked upward, not entering, letting his hardness slide between her labia, in the sleek wetness there, against her clitoris. She whimpered, her hips moving against the bed, against him. He stroked again, again, never entering, just teasing. She flung her arms out, grabbing the pillows in her clenched fists, her hips moving faster.
Lewis let her need, her pleasure flow through him, and decided he'd waited long enough. He wanted to be in her when she came that first time. He craved the way her body tightened around his, the pulsing of her climax all around him, and inside him. He reached down between her legs and guided himself to her, then slowly, very slowly, pushed inside.
Carlie moaned, a long, sweet sound that didn't stop until he was fully seated within her. She was so hot, so wet, it was a test of will not to explode immediately. No. He wanted to feel her, first, wanted to drain the cup of her desire before filling her with his own. Slowly he withdrew, and pushed back in. She shuddered, gasping, arching. He repeated the movement, achingly, torturously slowly.
Lowering his mouth to her neck, he started kissing, licking, nibbling at her neck and shoulders feeling her respond to each touch with a clench deep inside that made it even harder to be leisurely. It was good to go slow now and then. The urgency of his desire for her, and hers for him, hadn't tempered with their months together, though the level of intimacy had deepened substantially, to where there were times when they were joined that he honestly couldn't tell what he felt from what she felt.
Now, unfortunately, was not one of those times. Something flickered along the edge of his senses, distracting him, bringing a harsh spark of reality to the sensual delight of pleasuring his mate. Lewis lifted his head, his mouth leaving the soft skin of Carlie's shoulder, and he would have looked around, but she chose that moment to tighten around him, her body clenching softly in waves, her voice gasping his name.
He didn't sense danger, so whatever it was could wait. He moved, pushing deep into the pulsing heat of her, absorbing her pleasure into him, through him. Even as he did, his attention was caught again by that flicker which was becoming too profound a distraction to ignore. The aura was human and familiar, but out of place. It wasn't someone who belonged here. It was someone from Before. That realization was enough to bring him completely out of the moment. He sighed, and slowly withdrew, stroking her back in reply to her murmur of protest.
"We have a visitor, I'll get it," he said softly.
Carlie unburied her face from the pillows and looked over her shoulder at him, puzzled. "Did the doorbell ring?"
He shook his head, and she frowned. "You felt them."
It was a statement, but he answered it like a question. "I did."
Carlie stuck out her lower lip. "I wasn't distracting you enough, then."
He frowned thoughtfully. "No, you weren't. You really need to work on that. For instance, if you really wanted to distract me, you'd have been doing that little thing with your. . ." He ducked as she aimed a pillow at him, and chuckled, leaning down to kiss her pout away. "Carlie, love, my training is something even you may never be able to overcome."
She sighed. "It better not be a door-to-door salesman."
He sighed too. "It's not."
Lewis headed for the stairs. He stopped on the landing, frowning. More than familiar. This was a human he had hunted. He knew the taste of her, the mental scent of her . . . How the hell had she found them? What was she doing here? He was slightly surprised that Carlie hadn't identified her as well, but then, she'd come late to her abilities and didn't have his experience with using mental patterns to identify people. He didn't sense his traitorous lieutenant anywhere near. That was interesting. The human woman come alone, and she was afraid, too. He smiled, pleased by that.
He turned and padded back the way he'd come, past the room where Carlie lay sprawled in boneless afterglow, closing the door as he passed before going on to the rear stairway. Quietly he slipped out the side door and moved silently along the hedge, its green branches hiding him from her. A tall, slender woman with long spiral-curled chestnut brown hair was standing on the stoop, staring up at the window that faced the front stairs. She must have seen his movement behind the tinted glass when he'd paused a moment there. As she lifted her hand to touch the doorbell, he stepped close behind her, catching her hand with his to keep her from ringing it as he put his other hand over her mouth in a parody of earlier occasions.
"Welcome, Doctor Parker," he whispered in her ear.
He had to give her credit, he'd expected her to scream, and she didn't. Slowly he lowered his hand and stepped back. She turned and looked at him, her brown eyes widening as she realized he was naked. She swallowed, hard, her gaze snapping to his face and staying there, despite the surge of sexual excitation he could feel in her. He was amused by her reaction: fear, then interest, followed immediately by guilt. He smiled.
"Lewis," she said, an acknowledgment, her chin lifting a little. "So I was right. You are alive."
"As you see." He didn't bother to correct her to his new name as he swept his hand downward, knowing her eyes would follow. He couldn't resist twitting her a little. She was eminently tease-able. Color stained her pale cheeks as she jerked her gaze back up.
"I had to come, I need to talk to you."
Sloan's anxiety was palpable, and now that he had time to study her, he realized she looked extremely stressed. Given her fear of him, something must be seriously wrong to drive her to find and face him.
"Very well, follow me." He was about to lead Sloan around to the unlocked side entrance when Carlie opened the front door. She'd put on her own robe and was holding his in her hand, wearing that exasperated expression she got whenever he flouted human conventions.
Carlie looked at Sloan, her face registering surprise, then she smiled, and shoved the robe at Lewis as she grabbed Sloan and hugged her. The two women were close enough to the same height, and build that a stranger might have thought them related, though Carlie was more curvaceous, darker-skinned, more exotically featured.
"Sloan, God, it's been ages! It's great to see you! Come in!"
Lewis pulled his robe on and followed as Carlie ushered Sloan into the house, leading her into the kitchen. He never had figured out why, with so many 'official' places to receive visitors, Carlie invariably chose the kitchen instead. Something human, no doubt. He stood in the doorway, watching as Carlie got a pitcher of herbal tea out of the refrigerator and poured two glasses, chatting about nothing in particular until Sloan started to relax a little.
That annoyed him. He liked making Sloan nervous-- it was a fair reward for her untimely appearance. Not only that, he was a little irritated at Carlie for welcoming the enemy into their home with open arms. He wanted to question Sloan, to find out if she represented any danger, and here Carlie was treating her like a long-lost sister. Carlie must have caught something of his emotions, because she shot him an admonitory look as she pressed the glass of tea into Sloan's hands.
"Relax for a few, we need to get some clothes on," Carlie told her as she moved toward Lewis.
Sloan nodded and lifted the glass to sip, then stopped. Her gaze went to Carlie, then to Lewis, back to Carlie, registering the fact that it was mid-day and they were both wearing nothing but robes. A blush flooded her face as it finally dawned on her that she'd interrupted something. She bit her lip.
"Oh God, I'm sorry, I didn't . . ."
Carlie smiled. "Don't worry about it, Sloan. It's not like it was the only time."
Sloan's blush deepened, but she smiled through it. "No, I suspect not," She shot another glance at Lewis, her mouth curving in a knowledgeable smile.
Interesting response, that. Though he had felt another flash of interest from her, it had been followed by another emotion, one harder to pin down. He realized suddenly that though she was interested, the edge of desperation was gone. Her need wasn't on the same level that he remembered. He understood her smile now. Tom had finally taken her. Before he had time to dwell on that, Carlie had him by the elbow and was urging him up the stairs. She didn't speak until she'd closed their bedroom door, but then she turned, hands on her hips.
"Next time put something on. I thought she was going to pass out."
Lewis eyed her for a moment, then his mouth curved. "So did I."
Carlie crossed her arms and tapped her fingers on her forearms. He knew her well enough to know that was a warning sign. He waited, and she finally spoke.
"So, how long has she been hot for your body?"
He shrugged. "Since the first."
She scowled. Lewis could feel anger in her, and braced, but then it faded, and she sighed. "Well, it's not like I don't understand why. But I don't have to like it."
"She wouldn't act on it. She respects you, plus she has Tom."
Carlie looked surprised. "Does she?"
Lewis nodded. "Couldn't you tell? That smile, the way she looked at me. She knows now, she's had experience with one of us."
Carlie rolled her eyes. "Oh, like you're all sooo special."
Lewis caught her around the waist and pulled her to him, brushing his lips across hers. "The ones I trained, yes."
Carlie responded so fully to his kiss that for a moment he thought she was inviting him to resume their earlier activities, which surprised him, with Sloan downstairs. He was perfectly willing, but their uninvited guest might be a little annoyed. Not that it mattered, he thought, amused. But then Carlie pulled away with a sigh.
She slipped out of his arms and walked over to the closet, sorting through clothes. He stared at her. 'Loverboy?' Slowly he smiled, realizing she was teasing him again. He wondered if he would ever get used to that. No one had ever teased him before. No one had been comfortable enough with him to tease him. He liked it, but half the time he didn't catch on until so far after the fact that he felt like a special needs child. Something else she'd said bothered him, though. The way she'd said "Like *you're*all so special."
"Carlie . . ."
She turned, holding a blue dress on a hanger. "What?"
"You're one of us, not one of them. You're not human."
She absorbed that, and sighed. "Us and them again, Llyn? You know how I feel about that."
"It doesn't alter the facts, Carlie."
She looked back at him evenly. "They're our parents, our brothers and sisters. Without them we wouldn't exist."
"And with them, we may not continue to exist."
"Enough!" she snapped irritably. "Get dressed."
It was an old conversation, and one that invariably had no satisfactory ending. It was the only thing they ever really argued about. Everything else had a way of working itself out.
Sloan sat at the kitchen table, enjoying the wooded view out the large back window and sipping her tea, grateful for the cool minty liquid that settled her nervous stomach. She wondered where the babies were. Napping probably, which explained why their parents had been stealing a few moments of privacy to indulge in a little intimacy. Which she'd interrupted. She sighed. Not the best foot to start off on here.
Sloan heard someone coming down the stairs and looked up as Lewis came into the kitchen in jeans and a crisp blue oxford shirt, though he was still barefoot. She sent a silent thanks heavenward that he was fully clothed. She had no business thinking the kind of thoughts she'd been thinking about him earlier. They were downright embarrassing. But she couldn't help it . . . Tom and that damned 'Program 43' story had put these *images* in her head that popped up when she least wanted them to.
Funny, how she always remembered Lewis as being taller than he actually was. Granted, he had an inch or two over Tom and herself, but he wasn't a giant. She guessed it was just his 'presence' that made him seem so imposing. That, and that damned ice-eyed stare that flirted with that fraction of a second difference between intent and psychotic. Avoiding his gaze, Sloan looked past him, expecting to see Carlie, but she wasn't there. Lewis caught her at it and nodded toward the stairs.
"She'll be down in a minute. Why are you here, and perhaps more importantly, how did you know I was alive?"
His bluntness shouldn't have surprised her, but it did. She took a deep breath, trying to find the courage to speak. Just as she was about to do so, Carlie came down and moved to stand beside Lewis, who put his arm around her waist and pulled her closer to him with the kind of thoughtless intimacy that married couples often shared. Sloan felt her eyes fill with tears as she thought that she might never have that with Tom. It hurt, with a deep, stabbing pain that was physical enough to double her over.
Carlie was by her side immediately, bending down, a hand on her shoulder. "Sloan? Are you okay? What's wrong?"
Sloan had been able to handle Lewis' brusqueness, but Carlie's sympathy was her undoing. She lost what little control she had, and hid her face in her hands, sobbing. She kept trying to talk, to explain, but nothing would come out except choked syllables and finally Carlie hushed her attempts by the expedient means of pulling her close and patting her back like she probably did with her babies when they were wailing. Sloan felt about that old.
Gradually she ran out of tears, the sobs dying to hiccoughs, then to sighs. Finally it was over, like a fire that had consumed all its available fuel and left nothing but embers in its wake. She felt drained, sick, and embarrassed. How could she help Tom if she couldn't even tell them what had happened without bursting into tears? Carlie drew back a little and looked at her.
Sloan nodded, not trusting her voice. Carlie looked over her shoulder. "Llyn, get her a cold washcloth please."
Sloan watched in stunned amazement as Lewis uncurled from where he'd been sitting cross-legged on one of the kitchen counters watching the scene with a faintly puzzled frown. After he disappeared around the corner, Sloan looked at Carlie incredulously.
"He actually does what you tell him to?"
Carlie laughed. "Occasionally." She shot a look at Sloan, and lifted her eyebrows. "What, you thought it would be me up here barefoot and being the subservient little woman?"
Sloan nodded sheepishly. "Um, something like that."
Carlie laughed again, shaking her head, and stuck out a foot. "Notice who's wearing shoes and who isn't? Turns out my people are matriarchal, or sort of anyway. It works out to be pretty egalitarian, actually. Of course, our males have these defensive instincts that you have to smack out of their heads periodically, but I've never felt less subjugated in my life. Come on, tell me that's not one of the things you like about Tom? He treats you as an equal, even if he does tend to throw himself in front of you if he even thinks a dog is looking at you funny."
Carlie was right of course, and Sloan couldn't help laughing at the image her friend had conjured until thinking of Tom almost made her tear up again. As she willed back her pain, Lewis reappeared with a wet washcloth and held it out. Sloan took it from him and plastered the wet cloth over her face, letting the coolness seep into her flushed, swollen skin, feeling her control returning. She groped for her glass of tea, and someone put it in her hand so she could lift the bottom edge of the washcloth and drink it, the cool liquid easing her aching throat. Finally she felt calm enough to face them again, and she peeled the washcloth off her face and looked up at them.
"I'm sorry. It's been a tough few days. I really didn't intend to come up here and fall apart like this."
Carlie shook her head. "It's okay, Sloan. You were there for me when I fell apart, the least I can do is return the favor."
Lewis looked at Carlie oddly for a second, as if he were just understanding something important, then his expression smoothed out again and Sloan wasn't really sure she'd seen it at all. He looked at her, studying her face, and spoke for the first time since she'd broken down.
"Has something happened to Tom?" he asked evenly.
How the hell did he know that, Sloan wondered, then answered her own question. What else would have brought her here to them, then caused her to disintegrate into a puddle like this? She nodded.
"Is he dead?"
Trust Lewis to be blunt. Sloan took a deep breath, shaking her head. "No. At least, I don't think he is."
"You don't know for sure?"
"No. I saw him taken away, but I don't know what they've done with him since then."
Lewis' face was expressionless, but his eyes were blazing. "Go back. Who took him? How did they take him?"
"He was staying at my place. Ed was there keeping an eye on him, and I had to go to the lab to get . . ." She paused. Oh shit. She couldn't tell him about the gene therapy. It was too important. She went on, stumbling over her words a little. ". . . to get the, I mean some medication he needed. The lab was closed up when I got there, though, my security codes didn't work, and there were these guys in suits who told me the project had been closed down." She paused, gulped down some tea so she could continue talking, and went on.
"I went back to the apartment, and got there just in time to see a bunch of men in black military-looking clothing pushing Tom into a van. Tom looked drugged. I don't know who the men were, but I think they might have something to do with Walter's superior. Ed was in the apartment, they'd drugged him, too. He's still in the hospital over that one. About an hour after the ambulance left with Ed, this guy showed up at my door. A black guy, he said his name was Mark. At first he told me he was there to fix my door, which the guys had broken down to get to Tom. Except he turned out to be like you, a Dominant."
Lewis frowned. "A Dominant?"
Carlie laughed. "She's not telling you you're a Dom, Llyn. Remember, that's what they're calling us now, Homo Dominant."
He grinned. "Well, the other. . ."
Carlie put her hand over his mouth. "Sloan doesn't need to know that, dear," she said blandly. "Besides, anyone with half a brain could figure it out anyway."
Sloan was fascinated by the byplay. She had never in her life imagined that Lewis would let anyone talk like that to him, or act that way with him. She also realized that Carlie was calling him by another name. The first time she'd done it, it had slipped past her, but this time she noticed. Llyn, not Lewis. Sloan didn't think she'd ever be able to think of him with any other name, though. Lewis caught Carlie's hand in his and kissed it, then moved it away and shifted his attention back to Sloan, instantly serious again.
"This 'Mark,' Was he in his early thirties, a little taller than me, shaven head, goatee?"
Lewis nodded. "I know him, then. Go on."
"He took out some kind of electronic device and waved it around, it found a couple of bugs which he got rid of. Then he told me what had happened to Walter and Ray."
"Which was?" Lewis prompted.
"There was some kind of meeting arranged, between a group of Dominants who favor coexistence, and our side. Walter was sent as our representative, but there was an ambush at the meeting site. The guy from the Dominants was killed, and Walter only got away because Ray helped him. Mark said the ambush was arranged by Walter's boss, to provoke open warfare between humans and Dominants."
Lewis moved a few feet to look out the window, then turned. "That makes sense, it's what I would have done in her position." He was silent for a moment, thoughtful, then he spoke again. "How did you know I was here?"
"I guessed. I had wondered when Carlie moved up here if there wasn't some reason she hadn't told me, but I never really put it together until a couple of weeks ago when I told Tom about talking to you the night we got Carlie out. He's the one who figured out you might be alive, and it wasn't hard to put two and two together after that."
Lewis didn't move, but Sloan got the impression he had just gotten a whole lot more focused. "You didn't tell him before that? Why?"
Sloan thought about that and couldn't answer it. "It just never came up."
Lewis studied her for a moment, and she thought she saw a slight smile curve his mouth. "I see."
There was a wealth of implication in his tone, an annoying suggestion that he understood something that even she didn't. Before she had time to bristle, he was speaking again.
"Does anyone else know?"
Sloan shook her head. "No." Then she remembered the bugs that Mark had found in the apartment, and realized, aghast, that she couldn't guarantee that. If the devices had been there the night she and Tom had . . . She knew she was blushing, thinking of someone listening in on all that. Struggling for composure, she amended her denial. "Well, I don't think so, anyway. We didn't tell anyone, but if the listening devices that Mark found in the apartment were there earlier, I suppose someone else might know."
Lewis' jaw went tight, and he turned and left the room. Sloan looked at Carlie, questioningly. Carlie shrugged. They sat in silence until Lewis returned a few moments later. In response to Carlie's lifted eyebrows, he waved a hand at the window.
"I've turned on security system, activated the infrared fence and called in Paul and Daniel. I don't want you or the babies at risk."
Carlie looked distressed. "Do you think that's really necessary?"
Lewis nodded. "I do." He turned his back, staring out the window. "Is there anything else you would like to tell me, Dr. Parker?"
Sloan thought about it, and knew there wasn't. "No. I think that's it."
He walked over to stand between her and Carlie. "You haven't left out anything I might need to know?"
Of course she had, but she couldn't tell him. She couldn't. She tried to look innocent, tried to project confusion. "Nothing, I swear!"
As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she realized she'd given herself away. Her denial was too strong, too vehement. Lewis smiled slowly, the predatory smile of a man who knows his prey has just made a fatal error. He lifted an eyebrow.
"Haven't you learned you can't lie to us, Dr. Parker? Now, you've left out something important. I need to know what that is." Lewis put a finger under her chin and tipped it upward, leaning down so his eyes were only inches away. "You want my help, Dr. Parker, why else would you be here?" His voice was a raw silk whisper, somehow more threatening and frightening than a shout. "You're not in a position to bargain. If you want my help, you have to tell me everything. Why was Ed was watching Tom, and why did Tom need medication? How were the men able to approach the apartment without Tom sensing them?"
"Llyn, stop it, you're scaring her." Carlie said quietly.
Lewis flashed a look at Carlie, scowling. "Leave," he snapped.
Carlie looked shocked, and hurt. "Leave? Leave you alone here to intimidate my friend?"
Lewis straightened and turned toward Carlie, Sloan couldn't see his face, but his voice was strangely gentle. "I have to have the truth here, Carlie. I won't allow a lie or an omission to put you in danger." Without waiting for her to answer, he turned back to Sloan, and all semblance of gentleness disappeared from his voice. "You have a choice, Dr. Parker. You can tell me, or you can get out of here. Now."
His gaze locked with hers, refusing to let her turn aside. She swallowed heavily, knowing he wasn't joking. If she wanted his help, she had to tell him. She spoke, slowly. "Tom was sick. Well, that's not quite the right word, but I don't know how else to describe it."
She bit her lip. "Well, you see, Ed was . . . um, did you know that he had worked with Dr. Ian Copeland?"
Lewis nodded, his eyes narrowing. "In graduate school, I believe."
"Then, and also a couple of months ago. Dr. Copeland kidnapped Ed and forced him to help with a project up in Alaska."
A flicker of recognition passed across Lewis' face. "I know of it. Go on."
"Well, after Ed got away, he started using Dr. Copeland's techniques to develop a gene-therapy regimen designed to turn a Homo Dominant into a Homo Sapiens. He'd had some success in simian tests, so Tom asked Ed to test it on him."
Lewis' only reaction was a slight dilation of his pupils. If her eyes hadn't been on his, she would have thought he had no reaction at all. He was silent for a long time. Finally he spoke. "Did it work?"
"Yes, and no. It worked temporarily, but Tom had already begun to revert when they kidnapped him. He was back up to about a 1.4 differential when I went to the lab."
"And the 'medication' you were looking for?"
She swallowed. "The conversion serum. Ed was going to try a booster shot. Tom insisted."
Lewis moved away, standing silent again, clearly lost in thought. Sloan glanced at Carlie to see what her reaction was. She was watching Sloan, her gaze concerned.
"Tom volunteered to do it?" Carlie asked.
Sloan nodded. "He did. I didn't want him to. I was afraid it might kill him. It did make him pretty sick. It ended up killing the monkey."
Carlie's eyes widened. "And Ed went ahead and tested it on Tom?"
Sloan sighed. "The monkey was still alive when they made the decision to test the serum on Tom."
Lewis looked up sharply. "Animal testing hadn't even been completed?"
Sloan flinched from the incredulity and accusation in his voice. "I know. I argued that too. But it wasn't really Ed's fault, Tom insisted."
Lewis frowned, shaking his head. "I always thought Tom was just misguided, not stupid."
Sloan stiffened, ready to defend Tom's decision, but Lewis cut her off.
"I realize that's a matter on which we'll have to agree to disagree, Dr. Parker. So, what were your plans, if the serum had worked?"
Sloan lifted her chin. "What were yours, with your serum? Conversion, of course."
"Voluntary and involuntary, one assumes." Lewis said flatly.
Sloan shrugged, trying to be as callous as he was. "By whatever means necessary."
Lewis smiled, but there was no humor in it. "Very good. You're learning, Dr. Parker."
"I can't believe you two!" Carlie's voice was horrified, as was her expression when Sloan turned and looked at her. "You're both disgusting. I can't believe you're actually sitting here talking about this like it was normal! My God, what is the matter with you? Have you lost your minds?"
She glared at Lewis, then turned to fix her gaze on Sloan. "I thought you were my friend, Sloan, I thought you meant it when you said you thought coexistence was possible. Clearly I was wrong. If Tom hadn't been kidnapped, would you be upstairs right now, using that serum on my babies, risking their lives because you can't even be bothered to see if we can live in peace?"
"Carlie, I . . ." Sloan started to defend herself, to protest that she wouldn't do anything of the kind when Carlie rounded on Lewis.
"And you! Don't you dare get that smug 'I told you so' look on your face! You're encouraging her! You even think it's a good idea, because every move they make against us furthers your agenda against them. I am not stupid, and I know damned well that if you, and people like you, hadn't pushed them into a corner things would never have come to this!"
Lewis scowled. "Carlie . . ."
"No! Shut up, both of you. Not another word. I can't stomach either of you."
Carlie dashed from the room and up the stairs, leaving Sloan and Lewis together in an uncomfortable silence. After a moment, Lewis started toward the stairs. Sloan spoke quietly.
"I wouldn't. Not yet."
He turned and looked back at her, eyes narrowed. "She's not your mate."
Sloan smiled wryly, wondering why she was bothering. "No, but she's a woman. So am I. If it were me, I wouldn't want to see you for at least half an hour, and I suspect you'd better have chocolate when you show up."
"Chocolate?" Lewis repeated with a puzzled frown. He looked at her for a moment, then a slow, sensual grin crossed his face. "Oh, I think I can do better then that."
Sloan blushed and looked away, trying not to think about it. The man was impossible. He moved back toward her with that predator's glide of his, and stopped altogether too close for comfort. He leaned against the table, half sitting, perfectly at ease.
"It's difficult, isn't it?" he asked in a sympathetic tone.
"What is?" She made the mistake of looking up and was trapped by his eyes.
"Having Tom taken away from you, just after you finally became . . ." He paused for a moment, smiled, and went on. ". . . intimate."
"How did you--" Sloan cut herself off, aggravated. She had to stop letting him do this to her. "How would you like it if someone took Carlie away from you?" she asked, turning the tables on him.
The expression that flashed across his face at that could only be termed a snarl, though it was gone so quickly she almost doubted she'd actually seen it.
"Hurts, doesn't it?" Sloan asked, feeling an unexpected surge of compassion for him. Just like Tom, he had no idea how to deal with the more tender emotions.
Lewis' eyes went cold. "I don't need your pity, Dr. Parker."
She smiled softly. "But you have it anyway, Lewis."
His expression was so icy she was surprised she couldn't feel a wave of cold rolling off of him. Finally he leaned back a little, giving her slightly more room. Sloan got the feeling she'd earned a touch of respect from him.
"So, what now, Dr. Parker. What is it you expect from me?"
She sighed. "I don't expect anything, Lewis. I want your help, but I have nothing to offer in return. As you said, I'm not in a position to bargain. All I can do is ask."
"I find it odd that you would come to me for help. Explain that to me. Why me? Why not your own people?"
Sloan met his questioning gaze steadily. "Strange as it sounds, I felt I could trust you. Also, you were the only person I could think of that could pull it off. And, to be honest, I hoped that there was still something left of what you felt for Tom that I could appeal to."
He studied her a moment before answering. "What I felt for Tom?
Sloan felt her face redden, but didn't look away. "Yes. It's just a guess, but I suspect you do feel something for Tom. Why else would you have gone to the trouble to try to get him back and reprogram him instead of just killing him outright? Plus, Tom told me a little about his . . . relationship with you." That was as far as she could go. She looked away, hoping none of those damned images decided to pop into her head right now. She started to recite the Periodic Table of Elements in her head to make sure.
Lewis stared at her for several long, uncomfortable moments, and she wondered if she'd gone too far. He was so damned hard to read. Then, slowly, he shook his head.
"I must admit, I wouldn't have thought Tom would tell you about those aspects of his past. I also would have thought you would find such confessions distasteful. Congratulations, Dr. Parker, you've managed to surprise me, and that doesn't happen often."
Sloan smiled, pleased to have finally managed to score a point. "As I've pointed out to Tom, I may be a little naive, but I'm not closed-minded. I've always been a quick study. I know Tom still has some feelings for you. I just hope you still have some for him."
Lewis' mouth went taut. "Oh, I have feelings for him. Definitely. Because of him I spent six months in a cage."
Sloan eyed him sagely. "No, you spent six months in a cage because you decided to try to get him back. If you had simply had him killed, nothing would have happened to you."
He didn't like that. The flicker in his eyes would have made her take a step back, had it been possible. She knew she was risking a great deal, but she pushed again.
"Not only did you try to get him back, you left yourself vulnerable because of him."
"Which he took full advantage of. He gave me to his human masters."
"No, he didn't, and you know it. If you want to blame someone, blame me. I was the one who told Walter that Tom was going out to talk to you. I was afraid you'd be able to turn him again. Tom had nothing to do with it, he was as surprised as you were."
"He would have shot me," Lewis countered coolly.
"Would he? He had plenty of time. If he had been able to, he would have done so. You know that." Sloan was surprised by his statements. Had Lewis really misjudged Tom so badly, or was he just playing Devil's Advocate, trying to see if she had thought this through? She had. A million times since she'd first had the idea to come here.
"You know I'm right," she said quietly.
He pushed away from the table and moved to get a glass from the cabinet and fill it with water from the tap. He sipped it slowly, his gaze distant, thoughtful. Sloan had the distinct feeling he was playing for time, not an action she normally associated with Lewis. Finally he set the glass down on the counter and turned to face her.
"I have to talk with Carlie before I can make this decision."
Sloan stared at him. He was asking *Carlie* for permission? She'd suspected that he had changed, but clearly she hadn't had any idea how much. From what Tom had told her, the old Lewis would never have consulted anyone about a decision, he would just have made it. She felt a surge of trepidation. Carlie was angry with her right now, she couldn't count on her to go along with this. Especially not since it would doubtless put Lewis in danger. She didn't voice her concerns, though, simply nodded.
"Don't." He started out of the room and toward the stairs, and then turned back toward her as if just then remembering she was there. "Make yourself comfortable."
She nodded, knowing his talk with Carlie might take awhile.
Lewis knew where Carlie would be. Not in their bedroom, but in the nursery. The threat she'd perceived toward their children would have sent her there to reassure herself. He moved quietly, projecting calm, knowing that Sorcha, Luke, and Arian were still asleep. Carlie had quickly learned to shield herself from them after he'd shown her the basics, finding it made things easier for her.
The room was still dim, the shades drawn. Carlie was sitting cross-legged on the floor in the middle of the room, her eyes closed. He knew she wasn't asleep though, and she looked up as he came in, putting a finger to her lips. He nodded, and moved to stand beside her, holding out his hand. She hesitated a moment, then put her hand in his, letting him draw her to her feet. He tugged gently on her hand, looking his question at her, and she nodded, and moved toward the door. They couldn't talk in the nursery, not about this. Neither of them spoke until they'd reached their bedroom at the far end of the hallway and closed the door behind them. Carlie looked at him, waiting for him to start. He looked at her, a little sheepishly.
"Dr. Parker said I ought to bring chocolate, but since we don't have any in the house, and I didn't want to wait and let this fester, I decided I would have to do that part later."
It was a good opening salvo. Carlie smiled. "Sloan's an intelligent woman."
He nodded. "Surprisingly so."
Carlie gave him a look. "Don't be a snob, Llyn."
He smiled, noting the emphasis on the nickname she'd given him. She was reminding him that he wasn't Lewis any more. "Sorry. Old habits."
"So I noticed." She glared at him. "God, you make me so mad when you do that."
He knew she wasn't talking about snobbery, and he sighed. "Carlie, I was Lewis for over forty years before I became Llewellyn Pryce. It's not an easy change to make. I'm still not even sure I should make it, at least not entirely. Especially not now. There are still times I may need to be Lewis."
Carlie sighed. "That doesn't mean I have to like it. You and Sloan . . . Talking about genocide as if it made good sense! Insane!"
"It does make sense, from either my point of view, or Dr. Parker's. However, just because something makes sense doesn't mean it's the right thing to do."
He hadn't really intended to say that quite the way it came out, without qualification, but once it was out, there was no taking it back. Carlie stared at him, startled, and reached out to touch his face with gentle fingers.
"You meant that!" she exclaimed softly.
Lewis wanted to deny it, but couldn't. He nodded, feeling oddly conflicted. He could feel her delight in his response, but knew it was a weakness in himself to think that. Before he had time to dwell on it, though, he found himself being kissed very thoroughly.
Immediately he wrapped his arms around her and returned the kiss, his mouth moving over hers, tasting her, feeling her appreciation in the way she moved against him, her nipples hard enough to feel even through their clothing. His desire for her was instant, as if there had been no interruption of their previous lovemaking. He lifted her off her feet and tumbled her backward onto the bed, coming down over her, his hips between her thighs. She laughed, and her hands went to his jeans, working at the buttons as he pushed her skirt up her thighs. Her hands found him bare beneath the denim, and she chuckled.
"Were you anticipating, or did you just dress in a hurry?" she asked.
He slid a hand up her thigh, found her equally bare, and grinned. "Both, what's your excuse?"
She grinned back. "Both."
She lifted her mouth and kissed him again, slowly, her lips soft and warm against his, her tongue a maddening glide against his. At the same time her hand found him, fingers curving to hold the taut length of his erection, stroking, teasing.
He returned the favor, his hand cupping the soft mound between her thighs, fingers searching out her most sensitive places, touching her lightly, just the barest of pressure, teasing her in ways he knew would send her need spiraling higher. She opened to him as he'd known she would, encouraging him to touch her more directly. He refused, just trailing his fingers through the gathering moisture, tracing the folds of her sex to their zenith, touching the slight nub of her clitoris with a fingertip, circling it. She gasped, hips lifting as she followed his touch, then he suddenly sensed a change in her and she pulled back, breathing heavily, her expression supremely frustrated.
"Llyn! She's still down there!"
He was so involved in what he was doing that for a moment he didn't know what she was talking about, then it sank in. He nodded. "I told her to make herself comfortable."
Carlie looked exasperated and let go of him, pushing at his shoulder, "Sloan's waiting for us! We can't do this now!"
He ran his nose along her jaw, and kissed her lightly. "Want to bet?" Deliberately he moved his hand lower, over desire-slicked flesh and up inside where she was fiery and tight.
"No!" she gasped, shaking her head, clutching at his shoulders as his fingers stroked slowly in the wet heat of her. He could feel the pleasure suffusing her, the need, as she laid herself bare for him, body, and mind.
"No what?" He queried, caressing her. "No, you don't want to bet, or no, don't do this? It won't take long, I promise," he coaxed, dropping his voice to a seductive, throaty whisper, knowing he could bring her to pleasure in seconds should he choose to do so.
"No!" Carlie exclaimed, grabbing his wrist to keep him from moving his hand. "I mean, yes... oh, god, I don't know, just don't stop!"
He loved giving her pleasure, and the way she responded to him without fear or reservation. Only one other person he could remember had ever done the same.
Lewis pushed that thought away. He would think about that later, or perhaps not at all. Carlie tangled the fingers of one hand in his hair, pulling his mouth down to hers as her other hand slid down his chest, over his stomach. Her fingers found him again as she shifted her thighs wider apart and guided him to her. He held there, feeling her heat against him, testing her in his mind, waiting to surround him. Her readiness trembled on the edges of his consciousness, a coiling tension in her that demanded he free it with himself.
He stopped resisting, and slid home. A long, slow glide. Home. A place he'd never had before, and never wanted to leave now. Making it quick just so they could go downstairs and deal with Tom's playmate suddenly seemed not only unimportant, but ill-advised. He wanted to stay where he was forever, moving just enough to keep his edge, just enough to bring Carlie to delight, over and over. He smiled. He had her now, her protests silenced by her need. He just had to keep her from thinking about Sloan.
Carlie knew she should have stopped him, but she never could, it seemed. Thank god her species had a built-in three year infertility cycle after each birth, or they'd be in serious trouble, as often as this happened. His desire fed hers, sparking like wildfire in dry grass. Sloan could wait a little while. Carlie knew when she was this close, it wouldn't take long. He'd teased her, waiting until she was almost ready to explode, so when he'd entered her, just the feel of him inside her almost pushed her over the edge. He let her adjust to him, but she was so ready for him that took only seconds. Finally, at the urging of her hands on his hips, he started to move, in strong, smooth strokes that emptied and filled her again and again.
Her senses were filled with him, the gleam of sunlight on silver hair, the harsh rasp of his breath in her ears, and the rich, unique scent of him. She kissed his shoulder where it was close to her mouth, and tongued the bitter salt of sweat from his skin. Solid and strong in her arms, his weight was almost uncomfortable as he bore down into her. Still, she couldn't imagine anything more perfect than the broad press of his thighs between her own and the way his weight pushed him deep into her. She put her hands on his hips, stroking his skin there, the only bit she could reach since neither of them had bothered to undress. She wished they had, she preferred the feel of his skin against hers everywhere, not just in the few inches bared by opened jeans and lifted skirts.
On another level, though, he was much more bare, and that was even more erotic than the physical. It was shattering when he opened to her like this, allowing her to feel what he felt. It was a rare gift, precious. His excitement suffused her, augmenting her pleasure with his pleasure, her need with his need. He slowed suddenly, and then stopped. She shifted her hips, trying to find the cadence again, moaning a little in protest at the interruption. Why had he stopped? She sensed something new in him. Mischief? What was he up to? The feeling was quickly gone, though, subsumed in his desire.
Carlie looked up into his eyes, eyes she'd once thought icy, but that were really as hot as the base of a flame. What she saw there reassured her as a slow grin spread across his face. He leaned down, feathering kisses across her face, closing her eyes with his lips. His hands cupped her bottom, holding her as he shifted onto his side, then pulled her upper leg over his hip.
He left one hand splayed across her lower back as he resettled more deeply into her. The other hand came around to open the buttons on her dress until he could spread the sides apart and bare her. When she would have reciprocated, he caught her hands in his and moved them over her head, curling her fingers over the lowest bar of the brass headboard. For just a moment she thought about moving her hands back to him, then she decided not to. She'd go with whatever he had in mind. She tightened her grip, waiting.
The metal was cool against her palms, a stark contrast to the heat of his hands on her, his body inside her. He touched her breasts, filling his palms with their weight, thumbs stroking across her nipples. She arched, wanting that touch again. He leaned down, and she felt the softness of his beard against the tight-furled flesh. She whimpered, her hands clutching tight around the bar. His closed lips brushed one taut peak; warm, dry, silky. She shivered, anticipating more, but he only repeated the caress at her other breast. She hoped he was feeling what he was doing to her, it was only fair that he share her frustration.
Carlie rolled her hips against his as she sought the stroke of flesh in flesh. He moved his hands down to her hips, holding her still, and moved his mouth back to where he'd started, this time taking the hard crest between his lips, suckling. She moaned, feeling the clench inside her that always accompanied that tug. Though she had nothing to give now, she would always associate that touch with the first time they had made love after the babies were born. Trapped, terrified, and with nothing but him to hang onto, she had asked him for something he couldn't possibly give, and he had somehow found a way to give it. Not just sex, but caring. He would always have a lifetime's darkness at his core, but he'd found a spark of light inside himself for her. For that, if for nothing else, she loved him.
She felt his hands tighten on her hips and he shuddered against her. She knew he was responding to what she'd just felt, the emotion, not the physical. "I love you," she whispered, bringing her hands up to cup his head, stroking his hair.
He lifted his head and she saw bright fire in his eyes for a moment, then the blaze was hidden by his lashes as his mouth covered hers in a fierce kiss. He rolled her onto her back, and his teasing stillness inside her erupted into a deep, driving rhythm. She exulted in the change in his response, always jubilant when he trusted her enough to abandon his hard-held control. It goaded her to match him, and she braced her feet and met him thrust for thrust, urging him on, her need fueled by his until it exploded through her in a maelstrom of delight. She cried out, unable to contain her pleasure, and a moment later he shuddered and she heard the soft, hoarse groan that signaled his release.
She held him tightly as her pulse began to slow, until he sighed deeply, and gave one last little push into her, as if unwilling to relinquish her, though they were both replete. She smiled, knowing exactly how he felt. She didn't want to let him go either. Let him go. Her mood suddenly darkened. He felt it, and pushed himself up so he could look into her face. With one finger, he touched the slight crease that had appeared between her eyebrows.
"That's not what I expect to feel from you at a time like this," he said, sounding a little worried.
She found a smile somewhere, and pasted it on. "I know, I'm sorry." She knew he wouldn't let it rest there, so she sighed, and explained. "It's not you, not at all. I just remembered. You're going to do it, aren't you?"
He looked puzzled. "Do what?"
A real smile curved her mouth as she realized he'd once again managed to completely forget Sloan, no doubt waiting impatiently downstairs. "You're going to help Sloan get Tom back."
He touched her lips with gentle fingers. "Only if you agree that I should. I won't leave you again without your consent."
Ah, God, she didn't want that burden. Carlie struggled not to let tears come, but it was useless. He turned back onto his side with her, holding her until she subsided, telling her what she wanted to hear without saying a word. Unfortunately, no matter how much she wanted to keep him here, and safe, she knew she couldn't. If the tables were turned she would want to know that someone would help. Sloan and Tom had helped her, they were her friends, but Lewis was her mate, her love. There was no contest. Still, she knew Sloan was right. There might not be anyone else who could pull it off.
Though she was still mad at Sloan for her insensitivity, Carlie knew in her heart that the other woman would never have touched her babies. Still, the thought of anyone even looking at them without her consent made her hot with rage. He responded to that, pulling back with a little half-growl.
"What?" he asked, looking around, trying to find the source of her anger.
She shook her head, letting the anger fade. "Nothing. Just a little maternal instinct showing." She shifted in Llyn's arms until she could see his face, and most importantly, his eyes. "You could get hurt, or worse." She couldn't bring herself to say killed.
He nodded. "On any mission such as this, injury or death is possible, though I know how they operate, and their weaknesses. I doubt I will have much difficulty with them."
She smiled at his confidence, but remembered the time he'd come to her, wounded, exhausted. She knew he was neither infallible or invulnerable.
"Do you think Tom is still alive, and if so, do you think you can get him out?"
"He's alive. They would have killed him in Sloan's apartment had they wanted him dead. If I can locate him, I can probably get him out. I suspect my former associates will know where he's being held. They keep close tabs on Tom."
"If you do this, will it put our children at risk?"
Llyn frowned thoughtfully. "Probably not. I would die before I would reveal your whereabouts, but Dr. Parker would not be difficult to break, should she be caught. I can deal with that before we go, though. There are ways of making sure she could not reveal anything about you. If I were unable to return, Paul and Daniel have standing instructions on what to do to be sure you and the children are safe and taken care of."
Carlie stared at him in surprise. "Since when?"
Llyn looked at her evenly. "Since the day we arrived. I take no chances with you."
A shiver traced its way down her spine. Sometimes Lewis looked at her out of Llyn's eyes, and she wondered how it was that he managed not to be that other person with her, or the babies. However he did it, she appreciated it. Living with Llyn was not always easy, but Lewis would be far more difficult. She had one last question, though, the one she hoped would make her decision easier.
"If you get Tom out, will it help, or hurt us?"
He looked thoughtful, weighing his answer, and finally spoke. "At this point, I can't see how it could harm us, but neither do I see any real potential for help. If the humans in power have made up their minds to hunt our kind openly, it's doubtful that Tom or Sloan have enough influence now to make a difference, if they ever did."
Carlie sighed. That meant she couldn't base her decision on that. She pushed away from him, sitting up, wrapping her arms around her knees. He lay back unspeaking, his gaze shrewd and sharp on her, letting her work through her feelings. Finally she sighed.
"I don't want you to go, but I can't imagine not helping them. I don't know what decision is the right one. I want both, I want you safe here with me, but I want to help them, too. I know that's not possible, but it's what I want. What do you want?"
"I want whatever you want," he said quietly, committing only to her.
Carlie shook her head, not letting him take the easy out. "No, I want the truth. If this had happened in a world where you'd never met me, where Sorcha, Arian, and Luke didn't exist, would you go?"
He didn't answer immediately, and a troubled frown creased his forehead. Since she'd expected an automatic 'no', his reaction surprised her. After several moments of silence he brought his focus back to her.
"I would go after him. I probably shouldn't, it's unwise, but I would."
Her surprise deepened. Llyn had always intimated that there had never been anyone in his life that he cared about, in any way, before he met her. If he cared enough about Tom to go after him, then that was wrong. She remembered that Tom had occasionally reminded her of Lewis, certain mannerisms, and ways of thinking. She'd put it down to species similarities, but perhaps it was more.
Lewis had trained Tom from the time he was nine or ten. Those similar mannerisms were probably the result of Tom copying his mentor, like any human child would with his father-figure. She remembered how high Tom's emotions had run whenever he thought of Lewis. If that feeling had been reciprocal, it explained the depth of hurt Llyn had felt when Tom betrayed him to the humans. If any of that bond remained, it explained Llyn's reactions now.
Carlie took his hands in hers, and looked into his eyes. "Do you want to go after him now?"
Something flickered behind his eyes, and some strong emotion tried to slip from behind his shields, but he wouldn't let it, and all she felt was calm. Slowly, he nodded.
There it was. She took a deep breath, trying to ignore the pain, to ignore her own needs, desires and fears, and allow him to do this thing he needed to do. She squeezed his hands in hers. "Then you have to do it."
He studied her, clearly feeling her conflict. She'd never learned to hide herself from him as well as he could from her. "I won't go if you don't want me to." He reiterated.
"I know that. But I do want you to go." She tried to put conviction into her voice, into her heart; to let that part of her feelings come to the surface and push the others down where they couldn't be sensed. His gaze claimed hers for long, long seconds, so long she began to wonder if she could hold it, then finally he drew a breath, and nodded.
"Then I go."
Sloan wandered the first floor, being nosy, and wondering how much of the house reflected Lewis, and how much was Carlie's influence. It was a lovely house, open, with a lot of windows to let in light, and light oak floors which reflected it. While the kitchen was practical, it was also a very expensive one, with granite countertops, a butcher-block island, and a Jenn-Aire cooktop. Both the range and the refrigerator had a brushed-steel finish that looked very classy, but would probably be hell to keep fingerprints off of when the kids got a little older. The table and chairs in the breakfast nook were sturdy and practical but attractive too. The only odd note in the room were the three Graco high-chairs arranged along one wall. She smiled, guessing that no one had yet come up with designer high-chairs.
In the foyer, the front doors were bracketed by angular stained-glass panels that even she recognized as school-of-Frank-Lloyd-Wright, and a couple of large, potted fan-palms softened the austerity of the area, seeming to flourish in the light from the large windows. Moving on to the 'formal' dining room, she noticed that the furnishings were expensive, but subtly so, nothing that screamed out how much money had been spent, unless you knew what to look for. A pale gray Berber carpet set the tone in the dining-room, setting off curtains of slubby ivory, silver and bronze shot silk that was matched by the upholstery on the chairs. The furniture was all real wood, not veneer, the lines clean and modern, though she didn't know enough about interior design to put a name to the style. A copy . . . at least she assumed it was a copy, of a Georgia O'Keefe 'Iris' painting held pride of place in the dining room wall, its subtle ivory, black and bronze shading coordinating perfectly with the rest of the room.
Though she hadn't actually opened any closed doors, or poked into drawers or cupboards, she was intrigued by what she found lying out in the open. An open door led into an office which held a desk, generic office-store stuff here, though, nothing fancy like the dining room. The desk held a computer, phone, and printer/fax combination, and next to it was a slanted drafting board covered with architectural drawings. She noticed several faxes addressed to someone named Llewellyn Pryce, and figured that must be the name Lewis was using now, since Carlie had called him Llyn a couple of times. She studied the drawings carefully, but they just seemed to be buildings, nothing mysterious.
Another room seemed to be more of a den, with an entertainment center that held a television, and CD-stereo system as well as a couch and coffee-table. These were well built, but comfortable, and homey, much less formal than the other rooms. Another generic desk was tucked into a corner of the room holding a second computer and printer, and a pile of textbooks and notebooks. Sloan recognized Carlie's handwriting on the papers that were scattered around and deduced that her friend must be taking college classes via the Web. A quick scan of the books identified psychology, anthropology (she smiled at that), and history. The history text was open to a section on Ancient Egypt, and Sloan picked it up. The page flipped, and photos of Tutankhamen's funeral mask and the famous bust of Nefertiti gazed serenely at her. Nice pictures, though the book itself seemed pretty generic, but then, what Western Civ book wasn't?
Moving on, she started to smell the sharp scent of chlorine, and found a sliding glass door which led to the enclosed pool she thought she'd seen from outside. Very nice, about half Olympic-size. The door was locked, though. Probably a good precaution with kids around the house. Speaking of which, she wondered where they were. Was the nursery down here, or on the second floor near their parents? Silly question, she realized. Carlie would want them up there with her.
A movement from outside caught her eye, and she watched out the window as a black four-by-four pulled up in front of the house and two men got out. They were dressed in jeans and flannel shirts, but from their alert, vigilant attitudes she was pretty sure they must be the guys Lewis said he'd called. They stood next to the vehicle for a moment, speaking, then each moved off in a different direction, walkie-talkies in hand.
Sloan sighed and headed back toward the kitchen, wondering if they'd mind if she poked around in the refrigerator. She'd been too nervous to eat breakfast but now her stomach was complaining. She passed the stairs, and looked at her watch. Forty minutes had passed since Lewis had gone after Carlie. What the hell were they doing up there? If they were fighting they sure were being quiet about it. Of course, remembering the smile on Lewis' face when she'd suggested he take Carlie chocolate by way of apology . . .
As if triggered by that thought, a soft and definitely not unhappy cry filtered through one of the closed doors upstairs. Sloan felt herself getting warm, and headed into the kitchen trying not to think about what they were doing. She looked at the refrigerator. Lewis had told her to make herself comfortable, and she decided to take him at his word. After all, they certainly were. She found cheese in the refrigerator, and a loaf of crusty bread in a mahogany breadbox on the counter. Cutting a slice of bread with a knife from the knife block by the stove, she topped the bread with the cheese and started to eat.
Her mind returned, despite herself, to what they were doing upstairs. She was envious. Not of Lewis, not really. He was attractive, but he was scary. No, she was envious that they still had each other. It was terrible how much you could miss something you'd barely gotten used to having. She and Tom had been sleeping together for less than a week when all hell had broken loose. She missed the sex, but she missed him more, his quirky humor, his puzzled gaze when she did something particularly human, and the intensity of his care for her. She brushed irritatedly at a tear and bit ferociously into her snack.
Five minutes later, she was in the refrigerator again, hunting for something else when she became aware that she wasn't alone. Startled, she turned around, and found one of the Flannel Shirt Guys standing behind her, eyeing her narrowly.
"Who are you?" he asked, one hand behind his back, she suspected on the butt of a gun. She stared. Up close, it hit her that he looked almost exactly like Mark, only with hair, and no beard. He had the same eyes, dark, liquid. . . like. . . it dawned on her finally who they reminded her of. The picture in Carlie's history text. Nefertiti. That started her gears rolling. Could the Dominants have existed even then? Could they go that far back? Was it possible that the 'genesis' point in Mexico wasn't really the genesis point at all, but perhaps just a gathering place for a large group?
"I asked who you were," Flannel Guy said again, more harshly.
"It's all right, Daniel. This is Dr. Sloan Parker. She's a guest." Lewis spoke quietly from the doorway that led to the main hall. Sloan started, she hadn't heard him come down. Of course, she hadn't heard Daniel either.
Daniel's expression reflected surprise, and recognition. "Parker? The one who . . ."
Lewis nodded. "Yes. Did you bring the items I requested?"
Daniel looked obliquely at Sloan before replying. "They're in the car."
"Good. The house is secure at the moment, get Paul and set up in the monitor room, I'll be in to brief you shortly."
Daniel nodded and left the room. Lewis looked at Sloan and nodded toward the open refrigerator.
"You might want to close the door, it's not very energy efficient to stand there with it open like that."
As she closed the door, Sloan struggled to suppress a giggle at being lectured on ecological correctness by Lewis. Somehow she didn't think he'd appreciate being laughed at. Instead she closed the door and nodded in the direction Daniel had gone.
"He looks like Mark."
Lewis nodded. "He should. They're twins."
"That would tend to explain it," Sloan said, thoughtfully. Twins. How the heck did they manage to have twins when they already were coping with four babies per birth? Or by 'twin' did he just mean 'born at the same birth' not 'shared a uterus'? She really needed to know more about their reproductive systems. Maybe Carlie could help. Thinking of Carlie made her look at Lewis, worriedly. He'd gone up to talk to her, they'd ended up making love. Sloan had no idea what that meant for her.
Lewis turned suddenly, looking up the stairs. A moment later Sloan saw Carlie start down the stairs. She was wearing a different dress, this one was green with a print of small flowers on it. In style it was similar to the other she'd worn, deceptively demure with a kind of Forties-effect. Her hair looked mussed. Interesting that Lewis was wearing the same clothes, and looked unruffled. How did men always manage that? As Carlie stepped into the room, Sloan got more worried. Carlie's eyes were faintly puffy and swollen, and her nose was a little red. Clearly, she'd been crying.
Carlie glanced briefly at Lewis, and then moved her gaze to Sloan. The pain in her dark eyes made Sloan's heartbeat speed up, her breath coming fast. Was she hurting for Sloan's situation, or because she had persuaded Lewis to refuse? Sloan straightened, looking from Lewis to Carlie and back, waiting.
"I'll need information." Lewis said suddenly. "I should be able to get it myself, but if my operative network has been compromised you may have to liaise with Mark to get it for me. I don't want anyone on either side to know I'm alive."
The relief Sloan felt was so intense that she gasped, and had to lean against the counter for a moment against the weakness that surged behind the realization. "You're going to do it?" she asked, just because she couldn't quite believe it.
Lewis looked at Carlie, who closed her eyes and nodded, her lips compressed into a tight line. For a moment Sloan wondered why Carlie was so clearly upset, then the realization hit her like the proverbial ton of bricks. Of course Carlie was upset. Sloan wasn't asking Lewis to pick up Tom at the airport, she was asking him to face an enemy who wouldn't hesitate to kill him. She was asking Carlie to let her mate go, knowing he might not return. Sloan had known the danger she was asking Lewis to face, but somehow she hadn't thought what impact that would have on Carlie until this moment.
She started to apologize to Carlie, but Lewis caught her eye and shook his head very slightly. Sloan reconsidered what she'd been about to say, and instead caught Carlie's hands in hers.
"Thank you. This means more than I can say."
Carlie's grip was almost painfully tight, and her eyes bored into Sloan's. "I want him back, understand?"
Sloan nodded. "I understand."
Carlie seemed willing to let it go at that, and she let go of Sloan's hands and stepped back. Lewis spoke into the tense silence.
"How long ago was Tom taken?"
Lewis nodded thoughtfully. "It's likely that they'll have him in close confinement, under sensory deprivation conditions. When they had me, they learned neither physical pain or psychological manipulation are particularly effective, but they did eventually manage to figure out that being deprived of neurological input is far worse for us than their usual repertoire of tortures."
Carlie's face went dead white and she put her hand on his arm. He reached out with his free hand and touched her face softly, and the smile that curved his mouth was startlingly warm and reassuring. Sloan knew exactly how Carlie felt. Thoughts of Tom being tortured had been wracking her since he'd been taken.
Suddenly, both Lewis and Carlie turned almost as one toward the stairs. Sloan looked, but saw nothing. Carlie let go of Lewis and went dashing up the stairs, Lewis hard on her heels. Sloan wasn't sure what was wrong, but she intended to find out. She followed them cautiously, not knowing what the danger might be. The stairs were carpeted and her feet made almost no noise as she ascended the risers.
A door toward the far end of the hallway stood open, and from within that room Sloan could hear Carlie's voice, scolding affectionately. The sound told her that whatever was wrong, it clearly wasn't drastic. She moved quietly down the hallway and looked into the room. It was a very large room, bigger than most master bedrooms. It was carpeted in a mottled sand-color that Sloan suspected had been chosen to disguise stains. The walls were painted a creamy white, and up near the ceiling a band of stars, triangles, squares, circles had been painted in bright primary colors-- fire engine red, cobalt blue, emerald green, solar yellow. Below the more ordinary shapes was an almost abstract pattern of lines, dots, and dashes that Sloan found disconcertingly familiar. She'd seen something like that before, but where? It came to her suddenly. The pillar they'd found in the desert. That's where she'd seen it before. Was it an alphabet? Numeric code? Or just decoration?
As she wondered, Carlie reached into the crib she stood next to and picked up one of the girls, Sloan was pretty sure it was Sorcha, her hair had always been a little darker than Arian's, and the blonde toddler still in the crib had paler hair. Arian was standing, swaying a little, holding herself upright with one hand wrapped around a crib-bar, the other fisted in Carlie's dress. Now that Sloan could see them in proximity to their father, she was struck by how much the girls looked like Lewis, with the same shape of face and eyes and eye-color too, though their mouths looked more like Carlie's than Lewis'.
She was a little surprised that they didn't look older. Their growth-rate must have slowed considerably from what it had been. That made a certain sense. With four simultaneous conceptions, there were physiological limits to the size of child a woman could deliver, even with the separate uteri. Rapid growth following birth would mean Dominant children would quickly attain a 'normal' birth weight, but if that rate were maintained indefinitely, it would probably lead to rapid aging, which didn't seem to occur.
Wondering where the Luke was, Sloan looked around in time to see Lewis reach up to grab Luke from the top shelf of a built-in bookcase on one wall. Lewis held Luke out at arm's length for a moment and stared into his eyes. Luke, who'd been screwing up his face preparatory to a howl, stopped suddenly, and laughed instead. Lewis shook his head and moved Luke to the cradle of his arm, one hand moving over his Luke's small, squirming body as if to reassure himself that his son was in one piece. When he had done so, he looked up at Carlie.
"We have got to get these damned things covered up. This is the third time this week."
Carlie looked at him, grinning. "Didn't you tell me that at least once already? I said it was a good idea. What are you waiting for, someone to wave a magic wand?"
Lewis looked distinctly annoyed. "I'll have Paul do it while I'm gone."
Carlie laughed. "Oh, good call. When in doubt, delegate. For an architect you certainly aren't very good at building things."
Lewis looked at Carlie narrowly. "The two skills are not interrelated."
"So you keep telling me. Is he okay?"
Lewis nodded. "Perfectly, as usual. Maybe we ought to just let him do it."
He moved to the crib where Arian waited, and reached down to pick her up as well, holding both of them with practiced ease. The sight caused Sloan a moment of wonder. In her world view, Lewis and babies did not belong together.
Carlie scowled at Lewis' comment. "Over my dead body!" she declared firmly. "He could fall and break his neck!"
"Let him do what?" Sloan asked from the doorway, her curiosity outweighing her desire not to be noticed. Both of them turned to look at Sloan, and Carlie sighed longsufferingly.
"My darling Luke is a climber. He's figured out how to climb out of his crib, and up various other things. Thankfully, either Sorcha and Arian usually lets us know when he's at it."
Sloan stared blankly. "A climber?" She looked at the shelf that Lewis had retrieved Luke from, and her eyes widened. It was as high as her head! "He climbed all the way up there by himself?"
Carlie nodded. "That he did. He never does it when we're in the room, of course. He seems to really like shelves. He's just like a cat, likes to curl up in little caves. Why he can't choose the *bottom* shelf is beyond me."
Sloan refrained from commenting that Luke's father had distinctly feline characteristics himself. She figured it probably wouldn't be appreciated. Suddenly something Carlie had said hit her. "What do you mean, Sorcha or Arian let you know? Are they talking already?" Sloan hadn't heard anything while they were downstairs, but her hearing was nowhere near as sensitive as a Dominant's. Still, there was another possibility, one Sloan had wondered about in the past. If Dominants were empathic, could they be more?
"No, they're not talking, they're still mostly pre-verbal, but they can all send . . ." Carlie paused, looking frustrated. "I don't know how to describe it."
"Telepathy?" Sloan asked, putting her speculation out in public.
"No, that's not it. Llyn?" Carlie looked at Lewis for help and he took up the explanation.
"Definitely not telepathy, there's no coherency, no delineated thought. What they do is send us emotional pictures, things that we can identify based on previous events and reactions. There's a specific one they use that we've learned to associate with Luke's little forays."
Sloan was fascinated. "Can they communicate other things? Hunger? Fear? Happiness?"
Carlie laughed. "Of course they can, they cry and laugh just like other babies."
Sloan shook her head. "No, I mean, more effectively. When a human baby cries sometimes it's hard to tell exactly what's wrong, whether it's wet, hungry, afraid, angry or just bored. Can you tell, with yours?"
Carlie looked thoughtful, and nodded slowly. "Yes, actually. We can."
Sloan felt a surge of excitement. This was the most interesting thing she'd learned about the Dominants in ages. "Is that true across the board? Is it something you all can do?"
Lewis shrugged. "I have no idea. My children are the only infants I have any experience with."
Sloan looked to Carlie, who shrugged. "Same here."
Frustrating. "Do you remember anything from your own childhoods that might indicate one way or another?" Sloan didn't have a lot of hope, she certainly didn't remember much of her own early childhood, but Dominants had better memories in general, they might.
Carlie shook her head. "I can't remember anything like that, but that's not surprising since I was raised by humans."
Sloan looked at Lewis. "What about you?"
Lewis and Carlie looked at each other, some silent communication occurring. Lewis looked as if he might protest, then finally shook his head. "I don't remember my childhood at all."
Sloan looked at him, understanding immediately. "Like Tom?"
He nodded. "Exactly like Tom."
Sloan shivered. What kind of people brainwashed children? Whoever led the Dominants had a great deal to answer for. She sighed. "It's a shame you don't know. If this empathic communication ability is true of your species in general, then it's a huge positive development!"
Lewis smiled. "Of course it is, Dr. Parker. Everything about us is."
Sloan looked at him standing there with his arms full of babies, and decided he looked safe enough at the moment to risk a poke. "Well, except for that little ego problem, maybe."
She wasn't sure how he'd take it, but to her surprise, he chuckled.
"I think I've heard that somewhere before."
"That's because you leave yourself open for it, love," Carlie told him, grinning. "Now, I've got to go make these three some lunch. You two watch them for a few, okay?"
Carlie took Sorcha over to a pile of toys in the corner and put her down next to them. Immediately Sorcha began to look for something, picking up and discarding toys rapidly. In Lewis' arms, both Luke and Arian began to fuss and fidget, and he moved to put them down next to Sorcha, where Arian joined in the quest for the perfect toy. Arian picked up a distinctly Fischer-Price-looking rattle striped boldly in red and white, and began to bash it on the floor in a decent approximation of four-four time. Sorcha grabbed a soft-book and began to 'read' it. Left to himself, Luke tottered toward the shelves again with great determination.
Lewis watched for a moment, then with a sigh he unbuttoned his cuffs and rolled up his sleeves, presumably so he could reach and grab without restriction. He stretched out on his side on the carpet between Luke and the shelves, using his body as a barricade to keep his errant son from accessing the forbidden fruit. Luke seemed to think that was a really good idea, and proceeded to use Lewis as a jungle gym.
Sloan stared, amazed, as Lewis proceeded to play with his son with every evidence of enjoyment. She kept having trouble reconciling this Lewis with the one who'd kidnapped her, and shot a woman in cold blood not three feet from her. It was as if he was two different people.
Lewis suddenly looked over at her, holding Luke in midair above himself. "Why does that surprise you so much, Dr. Parker? Aren't you two different people? One who loves a Homo Dominant, and another who said, less than an hour ago, that genetic conversion of Homo Dominant to Homo Sapiens should take place by any means necessary?"
Sloan felt a chill run down her spine. God, she really hated it when they did that. They could swear up and down that they weren't telepathic, but she still had a sneaking feeling they might be. She took a moment to consider her reply, having come to the conclusion that he often said things simply to get a reaction from her, and so far she had played into his hands.
"Yes, I said that. I also think you know I don't believe it. I said it because you provoked me, something you're very good at."
He grinned. "Why thank you, Dr. Parker."
"Call me Sloan. It seems silly for you to keep calling me Dr. Parker, especially when it sounds like you're making fun of me every time you do."
He smiled at that, which made Sloan wonder if that meant she'd been right. He lowered Luke to the floor and nudged him toward the toys with a gentle hand on his diapered behind.
"Very well, Sloan. If that's what you want."
"I do." Sloan suddenly became aware that Luke had bypassed the toys and was headed for the open door behind her at an amazingly fast clip for someone on all fours. She quickly stepped between him and his destination, squatting down.
"Oh no you don't, young man. There's no safety gate out there between you and the stairs." She looked at Lewis pointedly. "Which needs to be taken care of, I might add."
Lewis scowled. "Is this something all females do, regardless of species?"
Sloan nodded. "Pretty much."
Luke had given up on attaining the hallway, and sat down about a foot in front of her, staring at her intently. He was a really beautiful boy, his skin the color of milk-laden tea, his blue eyes startling contrast to his nearly-black curls. Funny, the girls looked like Lewis, except for their mouths, and Luke looked more like Carlie, with the same exception. He had his father's mouth, with a bow-curved upper lip saved from absolute prettiness by the slightly thin lower lip. She smiled at him, and he smiled back, revealing several unevenly-spaced teeth. She shook her head, a soundless whistle escaping her. In a few years, they'd have to pry the girls off this kid with sticks. Sloan looked over at Lewis. "You've got yourself a real killer here."
Lewis shook his head. "Carlie won't allow that. I promised her they wouldn't be trained to kill."
"I meant as in lady-killer," Sloan began, then she gasped as the implication in Lewis' comment sank in. He'd been serious. "My God! You would have done that to your own child?"
Lewis looked at her for long moment, his expression thoughtful. Finally he replied. "Lewis probably would have. I wouldn't. So, you see, there are advantages to being more than one person."
"But, you are Lewis." Sloan said pointedly.
Lewis shook his head. "I was Lewis. I am Llewellyn. Not the same. Are you the same person you were a year ago?"
"Of course I am!"
Lewis leaned his head on his hand, studying her like an insect on a pin. "Are you? I think if you review the question more carefully, you may find otherwise. A year ago would you have come to me for help?"
Sloan felt shaken, suddenly. He was right. That Sloan Parker would no more have gone to Lewis for help than she would have gone to Charles Manson. But if she'd changed so drastically, had he done so too? The old Lewis would never have been this candid with her. That scared her.
"But I need you to be Lewis!" she blurted out. "Lewis is the only one who can get Tom out!"
He smiled coldly. "I still am Lewis, when needed." He rolled to his feet and walked over to stand above her, staring at her in a way that sent her heart-rate soaring, and brought a lump to her throat. Lewis reached down and touched her hair with just the tips of his fingers, and she felt her scalp prickle with awareness. "Are you sure you want Lewis back, Sloan?" he asked, his voice silky and menacing.
Sloan nodded jerkily. "I'm sure." Her voice came out a whisper.
He lifted his hand from her hair and nodded. "Just remember, you asked for him."
Sloan suddenly became aware that the room was dead silent, save for the harsh sound of her own breathing. The background noise of playing babies had stopped. She looked at Luke, then at Sorcha and Arian. All three were completely immobile, silent, their eyes fixed on their father with intense, frightened eyes. Lewis noticed her distraction and he turned to see what had caught her attention. His eyes narrowed, then returned to her face, his expression bleak. Sloan held her breath as something like pain shadowed his clear azure gaze.
"The debt you just incurred may not be repayable," he said quietly. He stood there a moment longer, then spoke again. "Watch them."
With that, he abruptly turned and left
the room. Sloan stared after him for several seconds, then lifted shaking
hands to her face. God, what had she just done?
Though he knew Daniel and Paul were waiting for him, Lewis didn't go to the monitor room, nor did he go to the kitchen to help Carlie. He descended the stairs at the back of the hallway, and headed for the pool at a quick, deliberate pace. Reaching it, he unlocked the door and stepped inside. He undressed methodically and dove in, swimming hard, fast laps, pushing his speed, turning mindlessly each time he reached a wall. He passed his usual stopping point, and continued on, driving his body to its limit, until exhaustion drained the emotions from him and left him trembling, gasping for breath, but calm once more. He wondered if Sloan Parker had any idea how close she'd just come to dying.
He held onto the side of the pool, his forehead against the cool tile, his body drifting in the slowly subsiding waves. He had managed to purge his own reaction, but nothing would ever be able to remove the image of fear seen on faces that had never shown him that before, or erase the knowledge of fear felt in souls that had never feared him, not in that way. He took a deep breath pushed himself out of the pool, and walked over to the shelf where they kept a supply of towels. Wiping water from his face and eyes, he was glad no one but himself would know that moisture tasted more of salt than chlorine.
He hadn't realized how dominant Llewellyn had already become, just in the few months he had been that man. Carlie, Arian, Luke and Sorcha had forged a new creation from the remnants of Lewis, and their own love. He shook his head. Weakness. Emotion was weakness. He couldn't afford that now. He had to be clear, be precise, be focused. Already he could feel the newly-formed layers of Llewellyn sloughing off his psyche, the thin tissue cloven by the shining edge that was the blade of Lewis' being. The last of the pain dulled to a whisper somewhere too deep to notice. He finished drying himself off and reached for his clothes. He had things to do.
Carlie stood in the kitchen, fighting off tears as she felt Llewellyn disappear, replaced by the stranger she'd once given her body to. He didn't know she could feel him from here, she was sure of it. He'd gone far enough that she shouldn't have been able to feel him, but she could. Lately she'd realized her range was increasing. She wasn't sure why, whether it was just practice, or something else, she just knew it had happened.
Blindly, moving by rote, she finished putting home-made baby food into plastic dishes, and apple juice into three Tommy-Tippee cups. That done she set up the high-chairs, and placed things within easy reach on the table, ready to move them to the trays once the babies were settled. Noticing Sloan's iced-tea glass on the table, she picked it up, staring at it, feeling anger building. Why did she have to sacrifice her mate for Sloan's? Why did her babies deserve to lose their father? Why had she agreed to it? What martyr's impulse had driven her?
Something twisted inside her, and she threw the glass as hard as she could at the kitchen window. The drinking glass shattered, but the window held. Carlie stared, perplexed by its wholeness until she realized that it was yet another example of Lewis lurking inside Llyn. Bulletproof, shatterproof glass, no doubt. He'd never told her. For some reason that made her even angrier.
Yanking open a cabinet, she started hurling dishes at the window, deliberately trying to hit the same place each time, to stress it past its breaking point. Surely it had one. She did. She'd reached it. She grabbed another bowl, and found her arm caught and held. She turned, and saw that stranger standing there, holding her wrist in his hand, looking at her with a faint, puzzled frown.
It was his voice, but not his voice. She dropped the bowl, it fell to the counter, rolled off, and hit the floor but didn't break. She couldn't look at him, so she stared at the bowl instead, feeling slightly hysterical laughter bubbling up inside.
"Carlie?" He repeated her name, softer, trying to sound like Llyn, but she wasn't fooled. She knew it wasn't him. She shook her head.
"Go away. I'm all right. I'll clean up the mess."
She looked and realized he was right. Her bare arms were littered with small cuts from flying ceramics and glass shards. None of them were more than scratches, though. She shrugged. "They don't hurt. Go on, Daniel and Paul are waiting for you."
He let go of her arm, and took a step back. "I told you, I won't leave unless I have your permission."
She sighed, and shook her head. "It's too late to change our minds. I already gave you permission, and you already left. Nothing can change that now."
He didn't reply, and she couldn't sense his reaction to her words. Lewis shielded himself from her much better than Llyn had. A moment later he left the room. Carlie moved to the pantry that held the broom and dust-pan. Lunch would be a little delayed.
Sloan heard a scream and the sound of breaking glass. She jumped up and went to the door, about to run and see what was going on, then realized she couldn't leave the little ones alone, especially not after Lewis had ordered her to stay with them. There was a moment of silence, then more breakage, a deliberate, almost paced record of destruction.
That scream hadn't sounded frightened, it had been an expression of pure rage. Though Sloan would never have imagined gentle Carlie to capable of such a sound, she also had no doubt that was who it had been. She shivered in reaction. Why? What had happened? The babies started to fret, probably upset by her reaction to the sounds, since Carlie should too far away for them to sense. Taking a deep, calming breath, she closed the door as much for her own peace of mind as theirs.
Nearly an hour passed, and in trying to keep her trio of charges occupied Sloan had almost forgotten the sounds until the nursery door opened and Carlie stepped inside.
"Is everything okay?" Sloan ventured tentatively, searching her friend's face anxiously
Carlie seemed calm as she moved toward the girls. "I think you know the answer to that already, Sloan. Would you bring Luke down to the kitchen? I'll get Sorcha and Arian."
"Carlie, wait, we need to talk."
Carlie turned. "About what? It's done, Sloan. It can't be undone now."
"If there was any other way, anyone else I could have asked . . ." Sloan began, but Carlie shook her head.
"Don't, please. I do understand, but that doesn't mean I have to like it." Carlie moved to the window, staring outside, clearly seeing nothing of the view. "I just don't know what I'll do if Llyn doesn't come back," she whispered.
"He'll come back, you know he will. Lewis won't allow himself to fail."
Carlie looked back at her enigmatically. "That's not what I meant. You have no idea what you've done, do you? Yes, Lewis will probably come back. I don't know if Llyn can."
Sloan frowned. "What do you mean?"
"He's worked very hard to become Llyn, to not be Lewis any more. He's been succeeding, too. Now you've asked him to become Lewis again. I don't know if he'll be able to go back to being Llyn once that's over. It was hard enough the first time.
Sloan felt a painful stab of comprehension. She'd just had a first-hand demonstration of the difference between Lewis and Llyn. "I understand, Carlie, I do. If I'd known what I was asking, I might not have done it."
Carlie shook her head. "You would have, because as you said, there's no one else." She looked up, her dark eyes holding Sloan's as intently as Lewis' did at times. "But I have to tell you that if I had completely thought it through, and realized what I was setting into motion, I might not have been able to give him permission."
Sloan nodded slowly. "I don't think I could have, in your place. When I came here I was only thinking of myself, of Tom. The effect this could have on you never even crossed my mind, and I can't forgive myself for that. I'm so sorry."
Carlie sighed. "Thank you for that much, at least." Unexpectedly a wicked gleam of humor sparked her eyes, she grinned. "And I suspect that having to work alongside Lewis will be partial retribution for that thoughtlessness, won't it?"
Sloan remembered Lewis' question. 'Are you sure you want Lewis back?' and shuddered. "You're absolutely right. Lewis scares me spitless."
Carlie studied her for a moment. "Yes, he does. He also turns you on."
Sloan felt her face turn red, but didn't bother to deny it. How could she, when Carlie could feel what she felt? "Yes," she finally managed to say. "But you don't need to worry about that."
Carlie smiled knowingly. "No, I don't. Come on, help me get these guys downstairs before they get cranky."
She picked up Arian and winced as she settled her on her hip. Sloan saw her arms were pocked with small scabs, which she didn't remember from an hour earlier.
"What happened to your arms?" Sloan asked as Carlie reached for Sorcha
Carlie looked over at her with a wry expression. "A little accident with some dishes," she said, then paused and shook her head. "Actually, to be perfectly honest, it was a little 'on purpose' with some dishes. I think the technical term would be 'temper tantrum' but of course as a mature adult, I don' t have those."
Sloan ventured a smile. "Of course you don't. 'Accident' works just fine."
Carlie headed out the door with a daughter on each hip. Sloan picked up Luke and followed her down to the kitchen. They settled the children and Sloan helped out, feeding Luke while Carlie took care of the girls. After discovering the pitfalls involved in feeding a child who actually wanted to eat, Sloan began to wonder how anyone ever got food down a reluctant one. She swore she had more food on the tray, the floor, and Luke's outside than she did his inside.
They were starting on cleanup when Carlie suddenly looked up, frowning, and turned toward the door, her eyes wide. Sloan turned too, but didn't know the man who stood there, though he was vaguely familiar-looking with brown eyes and short, ash-blonde hair. Since she'd met Daniel, she figured he must be Paul, or did until Luke laughed, pointed, and said "Da!" That focused her attention more sharply, and she gasped as she recognized him. It was Lewis.
For just a moment she had the sickening fear that Dominants could shape-shift, then she realized there were more prosaic explanations. Remove the beard, cut his hair, add some hair-color, and dark contact lenses, and voila! He was barely recognizable. Every change was subtle, but together they added up to an entirely different person. No one looking for Lewis would give this man a second glance.
Lewis walked into the room and Sloan knew that even without his trademark hair and eyes, she would have known him by the way he moved, like a stalking cat. Definitely feline, she thought, remembering Carlie's comment about Luke. Like father, like son? He ignored Sloan completely and went to stand close to Carlie, his gaze on her face, unwavering.
Carlie colored a little, but lifted her chin. "Interesting look," she said blandly.
He shrugged. "It's functional. You're feeling better?"
Carlie's blush deepened as she nodded. "Yes."
Sloan noticed she didn't apologize. Lewis didn't seem to expect it, he just nodded in return.
"Good. I've made the necessary arrangements. Paul and Daniel will stay here until I return. I don't want them distracted, so call Teresa or Eric to come help you with the kids if you need assistance, they can be trusted. Above all, do not leave the house without an escort, understand?"
Carlie sighed. "Oh for God's sake, Llyn, you're the one who'll be in danger, not me!"
His expression softened slightly, and he reached out and touched her cheek with his fingertips. "Yes, I am, and I'll be in more danger if I'm distracted by worrying about your safety. Do as I ask?"
Carlie was apparently mollified by the change from order to request, because she reached up to cover his hand with hers, and nodded. "Yes, if it will help keep you safe." She drew his hand away, and shot him a narrow look. "But I'm well aware that you're manipulating me shamelessly."
Lewis smiled. "Of course you are, what would be the point, otherwise?"
Carlie laughed, then the laugh faded and she reached up to frame his face with her hands. "Come back to me. Both of you."
Sloan knew Carlie wasn't talking about her, or even Tom.
Apparently so did Lewis. He nodded. "I will."
Carlie leaned in and kissed him. Sloan turned away and started using the damp washrag on Luke, not wanting to intrude on their intimacy. Luke didn't much appreciate her efforts, and proceeded to let her know that in no uncertain terms. She was trying to hush him when someone tugged the rag out of her hands.
Sloan turned to find Lewis beside her, his attention focused on Luke. He leaned down, and took over where Sloan had left off. She was a little miffed when Luke chortled happily rather than protesting. She found it interesting that Luke recognized Lewis despite the changes in his appearance. Was it the empathic sense that made that possible? Scent? Some more profound parent-child bond? Whatever it was, she was clearly not the person Luke wanted to be with. She moved away and watched Lewis finish.
He spoke to Luke in a low, even voice as he worked, quietly enough that she couldn't make out words, just a soft, almost hypnotic rhythm. Luke seemed to relax as he listened, his fidgets lessening. He yawned. Lewis leaned down to kiss Luke's forehead softly, unfastened the safety strap that held him in the chair, then turned to Carlie, who was also watching him.
"I'll take Luke up, would you bring the girls? They'll be sleepy now, and I think it will be easier if they're asleep when I leave."
Carlie nodded solemnly, and started to get Sorcha out of her chair. Sloan moved to her side and lifted Arian out, handing her to Carlie. Sloan stayed behind. She had intruded enough as it was.
At first it hadn't been so bad once the drugs wore off, but it was getting worse, harder with every passing hour. Tom hated being alone. Even a guard stationed within sensing distance would be enough to keep him occupied, but instead there was only the camera, relentless, indifferent, and devoid of sensation. He found himself listening for the soft hum of its internal workings, the occasional whir as someone unseen adjusted the focus or the aperture from afar. At least that was better than silence.
He discovered that he could also hear the changes in the air-conditioning unit as it worked to keep the temperature at a constant, uncomfortable chill, and could occasionally catch a whiff of some petrochemical product, perhaps a lubricating oil used in the ventilator machinery. And always, there was the persistent ache of muscles never allowed full relaxation, or exercise. After so long, the pain had almost become a welcome thing. It was, at least, sensation.
The guards that had once brought him food had been replaced by a robotic drone that periodically rolled over to his cage with his 'meal', most often two slices of stale white bread smeared with an unappetizing salty-sweet substance that might have been peanut-butter in another lifetime. And they didn't even give him milk. Talk about cruel and unusual punishment. All he had to drink was water, and not enough of that.
They did still come to get him twice a day to escort him to the lavatory, at their convenience, not his. Of course, since it was the one place he would like to have been alone, they watched him there. He had to admit, though that he sometimes needed their help to get to the small cubicle, since his muscles were cramped from confinement. Even so, the guards who escorted him were completely stoic, apparently instructed not to speak or even emote in his presence. It was frustrating not to know what his captors wanted of him, other than to break him. Were they just doing it for fun, or was there some real purpose served by torturing him?
Devoid of any other stimulus, he turned inward, to his memories. He was still perturbed by the hole in his memory prior to the time he'd been sent to Lewis. What had his life been, before that? Good, bad, indifferent? Of the memories he did have, many were too dull for review, others too painful, or too shameful. But some weren't. Memories of Sloan, mostly. A few others. The night in the warehouse when they were studying the Pillar, when he and Ed had actually communicated for the first time, warily, but truly in a tentative attempt at friendship.
Then there were those other memories, the ones he didn't really want to think about but couldn't help. Talking to Sloan about Lewis had made those memories sharper, it seemed. He realized that Sloan was right. There had been, and still was, an emotional bond there. A strange one, but definitely present. He turned that thought over in his mind, not liking it very much. It did explain some things, though. Such as why he hadn't been able to bring himself to shoot Lewis, either time he'd had the chance to do so.
In fact, the more he thought about his last few encounters with Lewis, the odder they seemed. Looking back on that entire sequence of events, he realized now that Lewis had twice deliberately placed himself in a situation where he was vulnerable to Tom. Now, certainly Lewis was arrogant, and Tom had counted on that in trying to lure and entrap him, but he was also highly intelligent. Logically, Lewis shouldn't have given in to any urge that would place him at risk. So, why had he done so, unless . . . the bond went both ways?
Tom frowned, Sloan's words about trusting Lewis echoing in his head. Perhaps she been correct in sensing that in that particular instance, Lewis had indeed been trustworthy. That admission led him further into speculation. If Sloan had been right about that, perhaps she was right as well in thinking that the time Lewis had spent with Carlie had changed him even more. Could she also be right in thinking that, far from hiding somewhere plotting against humanity, Lewis really was up in Washington with Carlie, being nothing more than a mate, and father?
Tom laughed out loud at that. It was too bizarre to even consider. He glanced at the camera, quietly recording his actions, and wondered if they would take his laughter as a sign of mental deterioration. As he thought it, an idea came to him. If they thought they had succeeded in breaking him, then maybe they would let him out. He smiled slowly. They wanted crazy? He could do that. In spades.
Lewis was as efficient as Sloan had always imagined. He arranged for someone to deliver her mother's car back to her, along with a note from Sloan explaining that she was fine and would be in touch soon. He arranged airline tickets for them under assumed names, and fake identification so good Sloan wondered how he'd known her statistics so accurately. When she got up enough courage to ask, he just smiled enigmatically. The fact that he seemed permanently attached to his small notebook-computer made her figure it probably had something to do with that. Maybe he had access to the California DMV database? That was a scary thought.
On the plane he spent every possible moment working on the computer, much of it using an Airphone modem link that had to have cost him a fortune. Sloan tried to see what he was doing, but the damned LCD screen made it nearly impossible to see from where she was sitting, and she knew better than to be obvious about it. About twenty minutes before they were due to land, he shut the system down and sat back in his seat, staring past her out the window. After a few moments, she couldn't stand the suspense.
"Everything all set?"
Lewis shifted his gaze to her, looking amused. "Yes, Dr. Parker."
"Sloan," she corrected.
He shrugged. She waited for him to say something, but he didn't, so she was forced to try again.
"So, what are our plans?"
"To get off the plane when we land," he said blandly.
She managed not to roll her eyes. "After that?"
"Pick up the car that will be waiting for us."
Lewis shook his head. "A rental might get noticed in certain areas. We'll have access to several vehicles, all of them with legitimate registrations."
Sloan nodded as if she already knew that a rental might be a problem. "Can I ask you something?"
He looked at her obliquely. "You can ask."
His tone suggested he might not answer. She decided to ask anyway. "How do you have access to all this information and equipment and stuff if your people don't know you're still in the game? And what about Daniel and Paul? They obviously know."
His gaze shifted toward the window, and she had decided he wasn't going to tell her when he looked back at her again. "I've always believed strongly in self-preservation. After seeing what happened to some of my associates when they were no longer useful, in common parlance, I covered my ass."
His attitude surprised her a little. She'd thought that his loyalty to his people would be much stronger. But then, as he'd said, demonstrations of how little loyalty they had toward him would tend to shape a certain enlightened self-interest. Not unlike Tom, though the direction his had taken was quite different. She wondered how much of Lewis' plans had already been in place before he'd met Carlie. He'd helped her with money when the babies were born. Was that when he decided to leave himself a way out, or had he done that earlier?
She figured she'd gotten as much out of him on that topic as she could, and he was clearly not willing to give her details about his plans. So now what? Something safe, mundane, ordinary . . .
"Do you change diapers?"
His gaze shifted quickly to her face, obviously startled by her change of subject. After a moment a smile curved his mouth. "Yes. Why?"
"Just curious. You seemed to do pretty well with the babies."
"That surprises you?"
She nodded. "Well, yeah. It's not something I would have put high on a list of probabilities where you're concerned."
"Children are our future and our immortality, Dr. Parker. They are sacred. Actually, I've had a lot of experience with children, though generally they were somewhat older."
Like Tom. Instantly, involuntarily, Sloan remembered the night Tom had told her about himself and Lewis, remembered that moment of absolute horror when she'd thought Lewis might have been with Tom, sexually, when he was still a child. Before she could think of something else, Lewis picked up on her reaction, and stared at her curiously.
"That was a very odd response to such a simple statement, Dr. Parker."
Sloan resigned herself to being 'Dr. Parker.' He seemed to be constitutionally unable to use her first name. She shook her head. "It's nothing. Just a misunderstanding I had with Tom."
"You, and him, and certain aspects of his training."
Lewis nodded thoughtfully, and was silent for a moment, then his gaze snapped back to her, narrowed, affronted. "I'm not a monster, Sloan."
At first she only heard her name. Just when she thought he'd never use it, he did. She wondered if he did the 'Doctor Parker' thing just to irritate her. Then she realized what he'd said, and understood that he must have somehow figured out what she'd been thinking. God, she hated it when they did that. His phrase suddenly struck her as familiar, and she laughed softly.
"I know. Tom made that very clear."
That seemed to startle him. He studied her quizzically. "He did?"
She nodded. "Yes."
He sat back, considering that. "Interesting. I wouldn't have thought he would. Wouldn't it have better served his purpose to let you think I was a monster?"
"Why would he want me to think badly of you?"
"To protect you, to keep you away from me."
She smiled. "There was no reason for him to do that, he thought you were dead."
"Ah." Lewis was silent for a moment, and when he looked at her she thought she saw something, almost pleasure, in his gaze. "So it was an honest reaction. Untainted."
She nodded. "Completely. It was right after . . . um, never mind."
Lewis chuckled. "You asked him, didn't you? About program forty-three?"
Sloan felt herself going beet-red and couldn't meet his eyes. His chuckle deepened.
"Well done, Dr. Parker. With Tom, sometimes you have to push."
Sloan thought about Lewis being pushy with Tom, and shivered a little. Lewis grinned.
"Have you ever heard of privacy?" she snapped.
"Certainly, but to me your reactions are as public as if you were shouting them in an open room. Privacy hardly applies in this situation."
Sloan scowled. "Well, couldn't you at least pretend you didn't notice?"
Lewis just looked at her.
She sighed. "I guess not."
As he drove toward his chosen base location, Lewis occasionally glanced at Sloan to see if she had picked up on where they were going. She didn't appear to have done so, though she was frowning slightly as she looked out the window at the large, widely separated houses that littered the hillside, their green lawns looking out of place amongst the sere chaparral that was the locale's normal vegetation. Of course, her expression might have more to do with her annoyance with him than any subconscious recognition.
Lewis suppressed a smile. She was so predictable, yet somehow he found it amusing to provoke those predictable responses. He supposed it was a little childish of him, but after all, he had never gotten to indulge in such behavior when he was young. Carlie approved of him being childish, though to be truthful, he had to admit the word she'd used was child-like. Of course, he should be doing neither. He frowned. Vestiges of Llyn again, slipping out from his control. Damn. He turned the car onto the long drive that led up to the house, and finally Sloan gave a start of recognition, and turned to look at him.
"Isn't this the same place . . . ?" She started.
He nodded, cutting her off. "Yes. Amazing what you can pick up inexpensively at government auction."
Sloan's eyebrows went up. "You bought it?"
"I bought it. The government seized it, put it up for auction, and I bought it for half what we originally paid for it. I thought it would be a good investment as a rental."
Sloan looked at him oddly, and he sensed amusement from her.
"Something amuses you?" he queried.
She let out the grin she'd suppressed. "Just that you're the last person I'd ever expect to be a landlord. I'm having trouble picturing you with your head under a sink, wearing a ratty old t-shirt, dirty jeans and a tool-belt."
He visualized that, and made a face. "Is that what your landlord is like?"
She chuckled. "Well, not the current one, he lives in Hawaii and just collects rent and lets his super do all the dirty work, but I've had a few like I described."
He smiled. "I think I prefer the idea of living in Hawaii, myself."
Sloan seemed surprised by his response, and he wondered why. "Don't you think I can enjoy life?" he asked, genuinely curious.
From her embarrassed look, he assumed that she must not have. Interesting. He thought about that for a little while, and realized it was an example of how much he had changed since he'd been captured. Prior to that time, he probably wouldn't have even thought of such a thing, let alone commented on it to Sloan Parker.
He could still remember telling Carlie 'enjoyment is irrelevant.' Amazing, how long ago that seemed, now. He was disturbed, though, that even trying to be only Lewis, there were strong facets of Llyn beginning to reassert themselves. Emotions were distracting, and could affect his performance, possibly even prevent him from achieving his goal. That was unacceptable.
As they approached the end of the drive, he reached for the remote on the sun-visor, and pressed it. Ahead of them, the large garage door slid slowly upward, revealing two cars, and a space for the one he drove. He pulled in, set the brake, and got out. Sloan hurriedly unbuckled her seatbelt and scrambled to follow him as he unlocked the door into the house.
He stood on the threshold for a moment, looking into the spacious entryway with its curving staircase. The house looked much the same, the cream-colored walls reflecting the light that streamed in through the myriad windows. He liked the openness of it, the expansive feeling it had. In truth that was why he'd bought it, not because he ever thought he would have need of it as a base again.
Memories stirred. Tom. Lisa. He frowned slightly. Lisa had been a decent operative, and would have continued to develop, once her arrogance had been tamed. She had feared him appropriately, she had respected him, and most importantly she had obeyed him, unlike Tom. Killing Lisa had been convenient, but ultimately wasteful. Looking back on it with the distance and wisdom that time gave, he realized he had done it not just to frame Tom and Sloan, though that had been a beneficial side-effect. He had been required to make a choice. He couldn't leave both them and Lisa alive.
Ultimately, his decision to kill Lisa had been predicated on the knowledge that Lisa would eventually have taken it upon herself to remove the threat posed by Tom. She had been disdainful of Tom, calling him 'useless,' and she had always been overly-protective of Lewis. Tom's death had not been something Lewis could allow. At the time he'd told himself it was because he couldn't afford to make martyrs of Tom and Sloan, but since yesterday he had been thinking about what Sloan had said when she'd been trying to convince him to help her.
Sloan had spoken of his feelings for Tom. She'd pointed out that he had made himself vulnerable to his former lieutenant, that he had deliberately chosen to expose himself to capture in order to try to regain Tom's loyalty. Reflecting on that, he knew she was right, leaving him with the uncomfortable realization that Lisa had died because of emotions he hadn't dared acknowledge at the time. He had chosen to kill her because he could not bring himself to kill Tom, nor could he kill Sloan, knowing how Tom felt about her.
Lewis scowled and walked into the house. He hated having developed a conscience. Life had been much simpler without one. Emotions complicated things, but remembering the way he felt when he held Arian in his arms, or played with Luke and Sorcha, or the way he felt when he woke up beside Carlie, he knew he would continue to pay the price to have them. Some things were worth the price, and he knew deep inside that this was one of them.
He started up the stairs, heading for his old room, Sloan on his heels. Opening the door to the room, in his mind's eye Lewis saw the table and uncomfortable upright chair he'd been using that night. He saw himself there, waiting, anticipating Tom's arrival with anger, and yet a certain level of pleasureable anticipation. He'd wanted to see his wayward student, to bring him back where he belonged. In the present, Lewis moved into the room and went to stand at the window, looking down into the pristine turquoise of the pool, remembering. They'd fought. Strange, he thought, the similarities between battle, and sex. Two bodies striving, interlocked, anticipating each action, each reaction.
Lewis turned, saw Sloan staring at a spot on the floor with a strange intensity, he sensed fear, and dismay from her, but distantly, the emotions conjured in memory not the present. She was remembering that night as well. Sloan had actually been instrumental in Lisa's capture. Surprising, that, especially considering her reactions when he'd kidnapped her. She had shown no initiative at all. Apparently Sloan Parker only had initiative when someone other than herself was threatened. Her own safety didn't motivate her, but a threat to someone she cared about did. That was a good thing to keep in mind. He touched the wall, his shoulder aching a little in body-memory, that was where Tom had thrown him.
Looking up, Lewis noticed that the bullet-holes in the ceiling had been carefully patched and repainted. The government wouldn't have bothered, so it must have been done by his operatives. They always tried to anticipate his desires, to please him. All except Tom. Perhaps that was where the fascination lay, Tom was the only one of his students to ever defy him. Lewis thought about that, and knew it was partly true, but incomplete. He had been intrigued by Tom long before the other man had chosen to turn away from his own kind, and the thing that had interested him even then had been the same thing that eventually bonded him to Carlie. Emotion. Tom *felt* things.
He deliberately turned his thoughts from that path and stepped away from the window. Sloan looked up, her eyes wide, as if he'd startled her. That wasn't difficult, since she was afraid of him. He suppressed a smile at that thought. Afraid, but also drawn to him. It could be fun to play with that, though Carlie was all he really wanted. He moved closer to Sloan, just close enough to make her uncomfortable. She visibly resisted moving back away from him, and looked up, trying to act brave.
"So, when are we going to go get Tom?" Sloan asked.
Lewis smiled. "We're not."
Sloan stared at him, perplexed and a little angry. "What do you mean, we're not? You told me you would help!"
He reached out and smoothed a curl from where it had strayed across her forehead, using that as an excuse to impose his presence on her even more strongly. He caught her gaze, and stared into her eyes.
"Dr. Parker, I may have chosen to help you, but I'm not a fool, and I have every intention of returning to my family. I'm not going to risk my life attempting a frontal assault on what is probably their most heavily defended location."
Her gaze wavered. "Then how . . ." She swallowed hard, and finished in a whisper. "How are we going to rescue him?"
He let his hand slide down her hair to her shoulder, leaning close. "We're not. We're going to let them bring him to us."
She pulled away from his touch, retreating as he'd known she eventually would. From a safe distance, she looked at him with troubled, wary eyes.
"Then we'll never get him back!"
Lewis moved toward her, and she flinched back. He ignored the movement and passed her, going to the doorway and looking back at her.
"Of course we will."
She laughed a little hysterically. "Oh really? They're just going to walk up, ring the bell, and say 'here's Tom, thanks for the letting us borrow him'?"
Lewis considered that scenario, and slowly shook his head. "No. It will be slightly more complicated than that, though not tremendously. You see, the easiest way for us to get him back is to offer them something they want in exchange."
"We don't have anything they want!"
"Oh, we will, don't worry."
She eyed him suspiciously. "What will we have?"
He smiled. "You'll see."
"Why do I have the feeling I won't like this?"
"Because you're not entirely brainless, despite the front you like to put on," Lewis snapped, tiring of the game. "However, if you want them to give Tom back, you're going to have to play by their rules, which aren't nearly as fair as you seem to believe they are. Now, help me bring in the luggage. We have work to do."
Carlie sat bolt upright in bed, heart racing. Something was wrong! She was on her feet and moving before her brain really kicked in. She stopped a moment in the hallway, trying to compose herself, and figure out what had brought her awake. The house was still and quiet, and she sensed no intruders. Besides, even if there were, Daniel and Paul would have been alerted to that first. No, this was something else.
There. She figured it out finally. It was Luke. He wasn't really upset, not yet, but he wasn't happy either. He was 'aiming' for her, too, not just broadcasting widely. That meant Sorcha and Arian were sleeping. They had recently started to be able to do that, to not wake each other with undirected emotions. It wasn't something either she or Llyn had taught them, because it wasn't something they knew how to teach. It was fascinating to watch the children evolve ways of using their abilities to their own benefit.
Quietly she opened the door, stepped into the nursery, and turned up the dimmer just enough to light the room to a subtle glow. As she'd expected, Sorcha and Arian were sound asleep. Moving to the third crib, she wasn't too surprised to find it empty. He must have climbed out. Carlie turned, looking around the room trying to spot him. Paul and Daniel had spent two hours earlier that day walling up the bookcase to keep Luke off it, so he couldn't be there, but she didn't see him anywhere else, either. She frowned, and concentrated on 'feeling' him. He was nearby, very near. Definitely in the house, probably even in the room. He must be hiding. Carlie sighed.
"Luke, sweetie," she whispered. "Three in the morning is not a good time to play with mommy. Where are you?"
She looked under the crib. Nothing. She checked under Sorcha and Arian's' as well. Nothing. She looked in the toy box. Nothing. Had he somehow managed to get out of the room? No, that was impossible, the door had been closed when she got there. Frustrated, she looked around, hands on her hips.
"All right, where the heck are you?" Her gaze fell on the door that led into the bathroom, and she smiled. "Gotcha, you little bugger."
Reaching into the bathroom she flipped on the light, prepared to confront her wayward son. Luke was nowhere to be seen. She even checked under the sink, which he couldn't possibly have gotten into because of the childproof latches. Nothing. Carlie was starting to get a little scared. Only the reassuring feel of him nearby kept her from panic. She could tell he was no longer upset, in fact, he'd decided that having her search for him was amusing. She wasn't amused, herself. She was starting to get mad.
"Luke, show yourself right this instant, young man," she said in a quiet, but firm voice.
How could she have missed him? She started toward his crib again, to look under the rumpled blanket. He was too big to be hiding there, but she had to look. As she passed the newly walled-over bookcase, she heard something. She stopped suddenly, holding her breath, listening. The sound came again. The distinctive gurgling chortle of an amused child. It sounded oddly muffled, muted. Not quite believing her ears, she moved closer to the wall and put her ear against it. She heard a small scrabbling sound, which grew louder, and clearer, as did Luke's 'presence.' She stared at the wall.
A giggle this time. Luke could hear and feel her just as she could him. There was no doubt in her mind, none at all, that her son was on his favorite shelf. Behind a solid wall. Impossible. He simply could not be there. But he was. A shiver that was more of a shudder chased its way through her body. How could he have gotten in there? And how the heck was she going to get him out? She was going to have to get Paul or Daniel to come in and undo their handiwork. Surely they couldn't have accidentally walled Luke up inside there. . . no, that didn't make sense. They'd been finished long before she had put the children to bed for the night.
Carlie put her hand against the plasterboard, feeling its cool solidity underneath her fingers. Was she dreaming this? That was the only thing that made any sense. She had to be dreaming. Deliberately she lifted her hand from the wall, and slapped herself. It stung both her face and her fingers. Nope, not dreaming. She rubbed her face a little to ease the sting, and tried to come up with some plausible explanation for what confronted her. There was none. Giving up, she turned to go find her bodyguards-cum-handymen and get them to rip open the newly installed wall so she could get to Luke.
Another giggle sounded. This time it wasn't muffled at all. It was perfectly clear, and it came from Luke's crib. Carlie covered the distance in less than a second and grabbed Luke, lifting him, running her hands over his small, sturdy frame to reassure herself of both his presence and his safety. Hugging him to her, she sat down on the floor, her legs a little unsteady from the surge of adrenalin pouring through her. Arian and Sorcha stirred, disturbed by the emotions she knew she was projecting. She took several deep breaths, consciously calming herself the way Llyn had taught her. It worked, neither of the girls woke completely, settling back to sleep after a moment.
"How did you do that, baby? How?" Carlie whispered, staring into Luke's crystal-blue eyes, wishing desperately that he could talk.
She could think of only two explanations, both of which were too fantastic to be true. One, he had teleported himself into, and back out of, the bookshelves. Two, he had somehow projected a hallucination real enough to convince his own mother that he was in the bookcase. Teleportation was the least likely theory, since it was patently impossible according to known laws of physics. The other answer was more probable, but almost scarier in its own way. Either way, she wished Llyn were here to talk to. This was something she wasn't equipped to handle on her own. She cuddled Luke until he went to sleep, then put him back in his bed, and slipped quietly from the room.
Closing the nursery door with a sigh, Carlie took a moment to savor the quiet. While she knew it was perfectly natural for naps to grow shorter, and waking periods longer and more active as the babies matured, that didn't make it any easier to cope with the three of them without Llyn. She'd thought about calling Theresa, or Eric, as Llyn had suggested, but decided against it. She didn't want someone else to take Llyn's place in the babies' minds. They kept 'asking' about him, fussing, and giving her their emotion-pictures that represented him. Sorcha in particular was distressed by his absence. She was the most like him, quiet, thoughtful, with an almost frighteningly quick mind. Carlie tried to be reassuring, but even with empathy it was impossible to explain why he wasn't there. Not without letting her own fears slip into the mixture and upset them more.
She walked through the bedroom she and Llyn shared, out onto the balcony, and went to the rail. Curling her fingers around it she looked south, toward where she knew he was. Her nails dug into the wooden railing. Why had she let him go? Why had she allowed her sympathy for Sloan to interfere with her good sense? He was out there, in danger, only because she had allowed it. All it would have taken was a simple "no" and he would be here, and safe.
Of course, there was no way she could have said no, not once Llyn had admitted he wanted to help. Carlie suspected this was the first time he'd ever felt motivated to help someone for purely altruistic reasons. Not only that, but Tom and Sloan had helped her, how could she ignore their need and still be able to live with herself? Really, she'd had no other choice. She stared off into the distance as if she could somehow see him, or feel him, from so far away. She couldn't, of course. She was getting more sensitive, but not that much more.
God, he'd only been gone a few hours, and already she ached inside. Without him, she wasn't whole. She realized suddenly how stupid she'd been to worry about who might come back, Llyn, or Lewis. He couldn't be compartmentalized into good and bad halves, like some stupid Jekyll and Hyde story. He was who he was. Lewis was part of Llyn, and Llyn part of Lewis. The same man, inseparable. As she though that, a slight breeze stirred the trees, sending a rush of resinous scent southward.
"Come back to me," Carlie whispered, letting the wind carry her words. "Just come back."
"So, you think he's really nuts?" The question came from the big black man in the paramilitary gear. His rifle was slung casually over one shoulder as he studied Tom, apparently not too concerned about either his own safety, or that of the man he accompanied. Possibly that had something to do with the fact that Tom was currently lying on a gurney with psychiatric restraints holding him in place.
"I would say so. I mean, if he wasn't he couldn't keep that up. Actually, if I hear one more time about how small the world is, *I'll* be nuts! How have you stood it all this time?"
The second speaker was also male, though he was neither tall, nor strongly built. He wore a white lab-coat and his blonde hair had been carefully styled to conceal the fact that it was thinning. From his accentless, news-anchor delivery, Tom suspected he was a native Californian. The man's question was met with a laugh.
"I'm used to it, I've got three kids, but it's still pretty fuckin' annoyin'."
Tom hid his pleasure. He'd chosen that particular song for maxium irritation value. Sloan had once referred to it as "The Song That Shall Not Be Sung" and told him that many humans found it unbearably repetitious. Apparently he had chosen well.
"This guy didn't last nearly as long as the other one," the one with kids said. "What does that mean?"
"Could be any number of things," Lab-coat said, circling Tom like a vulture. "Either he's weaker-willed, less well-trained, or we've improved our technique. Maybe all of the above."
"Weird, they're supposed to be so superior and all that, but just stick 'em alone in a room for a few days and bingo, instant fruitcake. Wrap 'em up and ship 'em out for Christmas."
That drew another laugh from the Californian. "Interesting way to put it, but yes, it does seem to be a significant weakness. Still, we don't want him doing what the other one did, so we're just going to give him a little medication to make sure before we let him out of bed."
Tom tensed. Medication? What kind of medication? He hadn't counted on that. He thought they'd wanted him crazy so he'd given them that, figuring they'd let him out of the cage if he did. He hadn't bargained for this. He stopped singing. Both men looked at him in obvious relief.
"Thank God for small favors," Lab-coat breathed reverently, taking a syringe from his pocket and tapping it to move any trapped air to the top.
Tom swallowed. If they gave him an anti-depressant, or worse an anti-psychotic, it would scramble his nervous system and ruin any chance he had of escape. He knew intellectually what the drugs might do to him, but had never experienced it first hand. Lewis had planned to put him through that regimen so that he would be better equipped to endure it, but they had not gotten a chance to complete that part of his training. Knowing he had to try to prevent the use of drugs, Tom cleared his throat and spoke for the first time in days.
"Are you a doctor?" he asked, looking hopefully at the blond. He was surprised by the sound of his voice until he realized he was hoarse from hours of singing.
That got a smile. "Yes, actually. Very good. How are you feeling?"
"Okay, I guess. What am I doing here?" He hoped that his sudden lucidity wouldn't tip them off, but he had to keep them from using that syringe, and being crazy wasn't going to do it.
"You don't remember?"
He tried to look puzzled, and shook his head. "No. I . . . can't remember much of anything really. Am I in a hospital?" He was trying his best to seem pleasant, unthreatening, and very human.
"You could say that," the man said smoothly.
Tom tugged against the restraints on his arms carefully, with only a fraction of his full strength. "Why am I tied up? Did I do something bad?"
"You really don't remember? Do you know who you are? Do you know what you are?"
"I . . ." He frowned, not sure what response to give. He had to be not-crazy, but he also couldn't let on that he knew he wasn't human. Thinking quickly, he reverted to his most recent 'human' cover. Maybe he could convince them that he didn't remember that he was a Dominant. "I'm Tom Daniels. I work for the FBI. Was there an incident? Is that why I'm here? Was I drugged or shot?"
The doctor and the guard exchanged glances, a little puzzled, a little suspicious. Finally the doctor spoke again.
"You don't work for the FBI," the doctor informed him bluntly.
Tom frowned. "Yes I do. I was working on the Randall Lynch case."
The doctor laughed. "Oh yeah, I'm sure you were, since you're probably related to him."
Tom let a little anger show in his eyes. "Hey! No need to be insulting! The guy's a serious nutcase!"
"That's a strong statement coming from someone who just spent the last eighteen hours singing a Disney song over and over."
Tom looked at him blankly, pretending incomprehension. "I did?"
"Yes, you did." The doctor uncapped the syringe and leaned down.
Tom tried to pull away, but the restraints kept him in place. "Hey, what're you doing? What is that?"
"Just a little something that will help you keep it together. Don't worry."
"I don't like needles," Tom said, feeling a little desperate.
"It won't hurt a bit," the doctor said reassuringly. "I've had a lot of practice."
"Please," Tom said. "I'm just starting to feel normal . . ."
Too late. A sudden stinging in his arm told him that the doctor had ignored his plea. Damn. He could almost feel the medication as it swirled through his veins. He hoped it wasn't anything psychoactive, but knew the hope was futile. What else would they give a crazy person?
Pain bloomed behind his eyes in a burgeoning wave as the drugs reached their target. Tom gasped as the world spun and shifted around him, and his senses deadened. Nothing smelled right, or sounded right, and a strange, metallic taste flooded his mouth, making him gag. Even the feel of the restraints against his skin, and the pressure of the gurney underneath him was suddenly somehow distanced, removed.
He could no longer sense even the faintest vestige of emotion from either of the humans, and he was left even more isolated than before, completely cut off from any empathic contact. His thoughts seemed to clot like old blood in his head, slow, and sticky and opaque. He focused on the man standing over him with an empty syringe and tried to reach out, forgetting he couldn't. His arm felt heavy, almost disconnected.
"No . . . more . . . please?" He managed to get out.
"We'll see how you do with this, then decide."
"Won't work, not right." Tom said earnestly, trying to tell the man that the drugs wouldn't have the right effect on him, but couldn't form a coherent sentence.
"Just relax, Mr. Daniels. You'll be fine."
The man's words seemed foreign, meaningless. Tom stared, uncomprehending. Why was he here? Where was he? Where was Sloan? He needed Sloan, or even Ed. Someone he could trust. Someone who wouldn't hurt him. These people didn't understand him.
"Need sumnn . . ." No, that wasn't the right sound. Someone. It should be easy. Someone. He tried again. "Mmm unn . . ." He clenched his fists, frustrated that he couldn't make his throat and tongue work right.
The guard laughed. "I think he wants his mommy."
Tom turned his head toward the man, his gaze narrowed with dislike as he remembered his mother, what she'd done to him. "Killed her," he announced.
The humans exchanged a look, then the doctor turned back to Tom. "You killed your mother? Why?"
"She hurt me. Lewis said to." Tom couldn't decide which had been the primary motivation. It didn't matter. It had been necessary.
"Lewis?" The guard spoke. "That's the bastard who broke my arm!"
"Our previous 'guest,'" the doctor affirmed. "Interesting. I'd like to know more about that. How did you kill her?"
"Nine-mill'meter automatic, single shot," Tom told the doctor absently. It wasn't so hard to talk now. Why was that? He wished he could ask Lewis. Lewis knew a lot about drugs and how they affected Dominants.
Tom frowned, remembering how he'd shot his mother. Something seemed strange about the memory. Unreal. He remembered pulling the trigger, but not the inevitable aftermath. No blood, no mess. Just the acrid smell of burnt powder. When he tried to remember more, he could only hear Lewis' voice-- even, gentle, reasonable, but insistent.
"Why did she try to hurt you?"
"Tried to kill me. Said I was a traitor-- helping humans."
"Now that's what I call a dysfunctional family," the doctor commented drily, chuckling.
"Maybe they could get a guest shot on one of those daytime talk shows," the guard said, grinning. "'She's a member of an emerging new species bent on replacing humanity. Her son wants to further the cause of coexistance and claims she tried to kill him for it. She says it's just a case of evolution in action! We'll hear the full story today on Jerry Springer!'"
The guard and the doctor both laughed uproariously, the sound a painful underscore to Tom's isolation. It was so strange, so alien to hear their humor, but not feel it. Instinctively he reached out, his arm moving only an inch or so in the restraints.
"Touch?" he begged thickly. Maybe proximity would help. Maybe if he could touch one of them, he could feel again.
"What's that?" The doctor asked, leaning over him, his gaze curious.
"Touch. Let me. . ." Tom stretched out his fingers toward the closer man. "Need to feel, can't feel . . . "
The doctor drew back. "I don't think so. That would rather defeat our purpose."
"Purpose? Don' understan'. Why? Mm' on your side."
His confusion was honest. He really didn't understand. He'd been helping the humans, why had they turned on him? He realized suddenly that Lewis had been right. Humans weren't trustworthy. His head ached and he wanted to rub his eyes but couldn't. He couldn't think clearly. He wanted Sloan, he could trust her, if not the others. He could remember her face, horror-stricken as she'd seen them take him. She would help him. He had to rely on that. She would find him. Get him out. He only hoped she did it soon. He wasn't sure how many injections like that one he could handle.
What had Lewis told him to do in situation like this? In his mind he heard Lewis guiding, teaching, a calm, steady presence telling him what to do. Think of it as an experiment. Don't panic. Stay calm. Find your own emotions and use them to stabilize. Yes. That was it. Stabilize. Calm. He closed his eyes, and let the darkness soothe him. He heard someone speaking to him, but ignored it. Whoever it was, they weren't important, they didn't matter. For the moment, only Lewis' instructions mattered.
"Here, make yourself useful."
A three-inch stack of paper was slapped down onto the table next to her, and a yellow highlighter dropped beside it. Sloan jumped and gasped, startled out of dark imaginings about what might be happening to Tom. She looked up at Lewis, then back at the pages. She picked up the stack, found it still faintly warm from the laser printer.
"What are these?"
"Surveillance reports. You've done research before, right?"
Sloan thought back on the zillions of hours she'd spent working on her thesis, and smiled as she nodded. "Ad infinitum. What am I looking for?"
Sloan frowned. "Such as?"
"Anything. Does she brush her teeth at the same time every night, does she go out to dinner at the same time or place each week, any pattern at all. Understand?"
He stared down at her, waiting for her answer. He'd taken out the brown contact lenses, and his icy gaze was piercing, Sloan nodded again, and Lewis continued.
"She's a professional, so there won't be much. She knows better than to follow a routine. But there has to be someplace where she slips up. When we find that, we'll have her."
Lewis looked at her with a faintly exasperated expression. "Victoria Anne Givens."
Sloan frowned. "Who?"
He sighed. "Dr. Attwood's superior."
"Oh, you mean 'The Bitch,'" Sloan said offhandedly. "Why didn't you just say so?" She picked up the highlighter and turned her attention to the stack of papers. A moment later she realized he hadn't moved, and looked up, meaning to ask if there was something else he wanted, but his expression stopped her cold. He looked amused. Not in the irritating, superior, condescending way he usually did, but amused like he really did think something was funny. She lifted her eyebrows.
"'The Bitch?'" he asked, grinning.
Sloan shrugged. "She earned it."
He chuckled. "There's hope for you yet, Dr. Parker."
She grinned back. "I've thought the same thing about you a few times."
The humor in his eyes deepened. "You, and my wife." As he said it, the humor faded a little.
Sloan understood. She wasn't sure how, but she did. "Call her."
He frowned, staring at her. "What?"
"Call her. Tell her you're okay, make sure she is too. You know you want to. Just go ahead and do it."
"That would be inadvisable," Lewis said evenly.
"Why? It's not like we're in the middle of a pitched battle here. It's not going to compromise the mission or anything."
The humor flashed back into his eyes. "'Compromise the mission'?"
Sloan blushed. "Okay, I admit it. I've watched too many action-adventure movies with Ed. That's beside the point. Go call Carlie, or when I see her next, I'll tell her you had a perfectly good opportunity, and didn't use it."
His expression smoothed out into what she'd started calling his 'inscrutable' look. "Are you trying to blackmail me, Dr. Parker?"
Sloan widened her eyes innocently. "Me? Blackmail you? Whatever gave you that idea?"
Lewis studied her a moment longer, then turned away, shaking his head, a smile lurking in the muscles around his mouth. She watched him walk away, noticing that his jeans fit him very well. Carlie's influence, no doubt, since the first time she'd seen him he had looked like an escapee from Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. It really was too bad that Tom's taste in clothes ran to stodgy, too. When they got him back, she was definitely going to buy him some jeans that fit. Idly, she wondered if great butts were one of the genetic enhancements coded into the Dominant's DNA.
Four hours later, Sloan picked up the sheaf of pages and flipped through them, looking at the highlighter marks. There weren't all that many of them. Lewis was right, the woman was very careful. As she fanned the pages, something jumped out at her. She fanned the stack again, more slowly, then she spread them on the table, and looked. She started to smile. Careful, yes, but there was one thing. She stood up, stretching to ease the muscles cramped from bending over the table for so long, then went looking for Lewis.
She finally found him ensconced in the library. He had set up his laptop on the large desk, and was typing rapidly, his gaze fixed on the screen. She waited for a break in the flow of clicks, but none came. She was starting to get impatient when he spoke, his fingers never slowing on the keys.
"What is it, Dr. Parker?"
"I found something."
His fingers stopped moving. "Show me."
She moved to the desk and spread out the pages, glancing at the screen of the laptop just as he minimized whatever it was he'd been doing. She wondered for a moment if it was Solitaire and he'd just been pretending to work. Probably not.
"Here, this . . ." she pointed. "And this, and this. Same time, every week. A pattern. And," she pulled out a few more sheets. "See? She uses three routes on a sequential basis. Always the same three, always the same sequence."
Lewis studied the reports for several minutes, then he started to nod. "Yes, it is a pattern, a continuing one, better still she takes only two guards." He looked up at her. "Congratulations, Dr. Parker. I think you may have just found her weak spot."
Sloan grinned, inordinately pleased by his meager praise. "It's enough?"
He nodded. "I believe so. We can wait for her on her jogging route, and take her there."
Sloan started. "Take her?"
Lewis gazed back at her, that annoyingly ironic amusement back on his face. "What did you think we were going to do, invite her for coffee?"
Sloan swallowed hard. "I guess I didn't really think about it. So, she's the commodity you intend to trade?"
His smile deepened. "Bravo, Sloan. Such a bright girl."
Her face got hot, but she lifted her chin. "I did find the pattern for you."
He shrugged. "I had other things to do, you were here and capable."
She brightened again, oddly gratified by the fact that he'd thought she could do it. She tried to think of something to say in reply, but didn't come up with anything that didn't sound fatuous. She was about to give up, when something else occurred to her. "Did you call her?"
He looked puzzled, but only for a fraction of a second. Then, to her delight, a faint flush washed across his face. She grinned.
"You did! You called Carlie! Is she okay?"
He nodded. "Yes, they're all fine. Nothing out of the ordinary, so far."
"Good. I'm glad. Carlie's very special."
"They all are," Lewis said, his expression challenging.
Sloan smiled, amused by his possessive pride. "Yes, they are."
He looked away, at the papers, and gathered them up. "I need to make a call."
Lewis stood and walked out of the room, leaving Sloan by herself. She leaned on the edge of the desk and eyed the laptop. After a moment her curiosity got the best of her and she reached for the trackball to bring up the screen. From behind her, a hand shot out, catching her arm.
She gasped, and turned to find herself nose-to-nose with Lewis, his eyes narrowed, and hard. Where the hell had he come from? She had neither seen, nor heard him reenter the room. His fingers were like steel bands around her wrist, not hurting her, yet, but the promise was inherent. Her heart rate skyrocketed, and she started to shake. He stared into her eyes a moment longer, then released her arm. She rubbed at her wrist, watching the white marks left by his fingers turn pink as blood returned to the skin.
"Dr. Parker, you're intelligent enough to know that what you just tried to do is against the rules, correct?"
She nodded, and shuddered. He smiled.
"Good, then we understand each other. Now, after you?"
He put his hand on the small of her back and guided her out of the library, closing the doors behind them. They weren't locked, but they didn't need to be. She was starting to understand that though he wasn't the Lewis she remembered, there was enough of that man left in him to scare her spitless. She couldn't believe she'd actually teased him a couple of times. Where had she gotten the nerve? She was still shaking as they reached the kitchen. She sank down into one of the kitchen chairs and he glowered at her as he turned to leave the room.
"Stay there," Lewis ordered with a stern look.
By the time he returned fifteen minutes later, Sloan had stopped shaking, and gotten irritated with herself again for letting him get to her so easily. How did he do it? How did he manage to make her forget who and what he was, only to smack her in the face with it when she'd been lulled into thinking of him as someone else, someone not-scary. He was both, that was the problem.
He paused for a moment in the doorway, pulling on his jacket, clearly planning to leave. She noticed his eyes were brown again, he'd put the contacts back in. Sloan started to stand up, but he waved her back. She sat, not happy, and looked at him.
"Where are you going?"
"What day is it?"
Sloan was puzzled by his response, but answered anyway. "Saturday."
"And what time is it?"
She looked at her watch. "Four-forty-two, p.m."
"And what day of the week and at what time does Ms. Givens go for her run?" His tone held the encouraging brightness of a pre-school teacher to a particularly slow child.
Sloan sighed, feeling every bit as stupid as he was implying she was. "Saturdays at eight."
He smiled. "Exactly."
"Why can't I come along, then?"
"Because you have no training at all. You'd just get yourself in trouble, and I don't have the time to be dealing with that. I'll be back with her between eight and nine. Make yourself scarce. I don't want her to see you."
"Because, I want her to think this is a Dominant operation, not a private action."
Sloan stared at him, confused. "What difference does it make?"
Lewis looked exasperated. "If she thinks it was a formal operation, she won't be looking for anyone else to blame. If you'd like to have a life once this is over, I recommend that you cooperate."
Sloan thought about Givens and her ninja-commandos, and nodded.
Lewis smiled. "Good." He started out of the room, then stopped, looking back at her. "Two of my operatives will be here shortly. They know you're here and they won't disturb you, but it would be best if you stayed out of their way. The bedrooms on the second floor are unoccupied, I suggest you use one."
He turned and left. Sloan heard the door that led to the garage open, then close a moment later. She felt like screaming. What was she supposed to do here by herself for hours? Pace? Think about Tom locked up somewhere, alone, maybe dying? She took a deep breath, trying to calm down, but seething inside. At least Tom had always let her try to keep up, Lewis just left her behind. With a sigh, she went looking for something to occupy her time. There was a whole library full of books. Might as well try that first.
It annoyed her that she actually hesitated before opening the library door. She caught herself looking around, making sure Lewis wasn't lurking, waiting to grab her. Of course he wasn't. The only place he was likely to be lying in wait at the moment was on The Bitch's jogging route. Sloan suddenly discovered she didn't feel even an iota of guilt about the fact that she'd helped make that possible. Interesting. Maybe there were some aspects to being a Dominant that she could relate to.
Pushing open the door, her gaze was immediately drawn to the desk. The laptop was still there, which engendered a strange mixture of irritation and pleasure. Irritation that he was so arrogant as to assume she would leave it alone, and pleasure that he trusted her enough to leave it. She debated whether or not to check it out, and finally decided not to. She needed Lewis. Antagonizing him would be stupid, and the last thing she wanted to do was fulfill his expectation that all humans were stupid.
She found a book on Watson & Crick on one of the shelves, and pulled it, savoring the irony. What better reading material in a house belonging to a Homo Dominant than a biography of the men who had discovered DNA? She headed upstairs to claim a room, figuring one of them had to have an attached bath. Reading in the tub was always a good way to relax.
Lewis sat in the passenger seat of the parked Explorer, waiting. He could sense the alert, sharp minds of his operatives at their assigned stations. He checked his watch. Ten minutes past eight. She should be here in approximately ten minutes, depending on her speed. He leaned back, closed his eyes and let his senses expand, searching for her familiar 'scent'. There. She was close. A slight surge of adrenalin flowed through him, and frowned. It had been too long since he'd run an operation. He couldn't let himself be distracted by such things. He took a moment to use breathing and relaxation techniques to deal with the excess stimulant in his system, and returned his attention to the task at hand.
In the side mirror, Lewis saw a tall, strongly built man in a dark sweatsuit approach. His target's point man, definitely. He radiated the alert confidence of a trained bodyguard, and his shirt was oversized enough to conceal a handgun in a body-hugging sheath. Lewis noted the headset he wore, most people would assume it was for a Walkman. Lewis did not. As the man drew even with the vehicle, he glanced inside. Lewis didn't look up from his book as the man's sharp gaze swept over him, the paper cup emblazoned with a popular coffeehouse logo, the book in his hand and the empty driver's seat in a matter of seconds.
None of those things raised a warning flag in the man's mind, clearly he didn't find it unusual that someone would park here, having a cup of coffee and reading as they waited for the vehicle's driver to return from some errand. Lewis had expected as much. He had deliberately set the scene so as to suggest no immediate threat. The bodyguard moved past, and Lewis put down the book, and tossed the empty cup to the floor.
Half a block ahead, Lewis saw Kimberly swing onto her bicycle and start off, her action precisely calculated so that she would arrive at the intersection at the same moment as the first bodyguard. He watched, smiling slightly as the cyclist careened into the jogger, and they both hit the pavement in a welter of arms, legs, and wheels. Anyone watching would see it as no more than a chance occurrence. He shifted his gaze to the mirror, and saw his prey pause only a few feet away as she saw the accident occur. About twenty yards behind her, the second guard slowed in response to her hesitation. As he did, a car towing a travel-trailer pulled out into the street, blocking him, exactly as planned, cutting the guard off from Givens. Lewis knew that he would be efficiently dealt with by the driver of that car, and turned his attention to the target.
Jason and Michele moved out from their positions to flank her, each taking her by an arm. She started to resist, then abruptly sagged between them, looking disoriented as the sedative Michele had administered began to take effect. They quickly walked her to the Explorer and pushed her to the floor in the back seat so that she couldn't be seen from the street. Michele got into the back with her to make sure that she would stay down if the sedative proved ineffective. Jason got into the front seat, started the engine and pulled smoothly out into traffic. They passed the accident at the corner where the first bodyguard lay on the side of the road, to all appearances knocked unconscious by the apparently hysterical cyclist.
Lewis was pleased. Everything had gone smoothly, despite his long absence from the field. Once he was back at the house and his assistants dispatched to their normal duties he would call and give the release codes to the operatives he had 'borrowed.' They would remember nothing of the operation, only the implanted cover-memories he had given them to account for the time involved. Not only that, but he had managed it in such a way that no one on either side had been killed or seriously injured; he would not have to take more deaths onto his conscience. The thought of having a conscience made him smile ironically. Carlie would be pleased by that development. He wasn't sure he was.
Sloan knew when Lewis' operatives arrived. She'd heard them come in, and shortly after that, heard pounding, sawing, and various other odd noises from above her. She never would have guessed the Dominants to be such a practical bunch, but between Mark, and these guys, it was clear that they knew how to work with their hands as well as their minds. She didn't really want to know what they were building, though. Finally things got quiet again, but she didn't know if they had left, or just finished whatever it was that was noisy.
Sloan had stayed in the tub until her toes started to wrinkle, then got out and dressed, and curled up on the bed to read. After awhile her stomach started nagging her to eat, but Lewis had made it clear he wanted her to stay out of the way, so she just ignored it. She figured there would be time to eat later. Even Dominants needed to eat. In fact, if Tom was any example, they needed to eat more frequently than humans in order to fuel their higher metabolisms. In any case she was sure food would be forthcoming eventually.
The light coming in from outside began to change, taking on that just-before-sunset glow, and Sloan got up and went to the window to watch the sun send streaks of light through the clouds as it slid behind the hillside. She looked down and saw the pool reflecting the light and clouds. She noticed a hot tub and wished she'd seen it earlier. It would have been a lot more comfortable than the bathtub, and she had shorts and a T-shirt in her bag that could have substituted for a bathing suit.
As she stood there thinking that she could get used to living in a place like this, Sloan suddenly remembered Tom's voice as he spoke of his training sessions with Lewis. She shivered. Had they happened here? Tom had said something about the place having had 'the right address', which this definitely was. Logically she knew that there was no rule that said someone who lived in an expensive, elegant home couldn't be a rapist or a murderer, but a place like this would tend to put someone at ease, even if it was a false sense of security.
She sighed and turned away from the window, dropping back onto the bed. It was interesting being around Lewis. Sloan suspected Lewis' behavior toward her was pretty typical of a Dominant toward a human, which showed her just how much Tom had modified his behavior for her sake. If Lewis had been interested in her sexually, he would never have waited for months before making a move, but Tom had waited until she practically forced him to respond to her. She knew it hadn't been due to lack of interest on his part. No, he'd just waited until she was aware enough of her own desires to act on them.
For someone like Tom, with the feelings of superiority his upbringing had instilled, waiting must have been incredibly difficult. She thought of him sleeping on her couch all that time, never once making an overt move, and shook her head in wonder at his self-control. Of course, Sloan grinned foolishly to herself, there had been that one time in the hotel when she'd practically stuck her breasts in his face. He'd certainly responded then! But then they'd been interrupted by the cops and in the aftermath of that he'd been taken by Lewis. Her trust levels had plummeted for quite awhile after that, and Tom had backed off again, waiting patiently. Amazing.
She looked at her watch impatiently. The sooner they had The Bitch, the sooner they could get Tom back. She knew there were those who would consider her a traitor toward her own kind, but she didn't see it that way. As far as she was concerned, the suffix didn't matter, it was the prefix that counted. They were all members of the same genus, if not the same species. They could live together, if people of intelligence on both sides could be made to understand that genocide was unnecessary. Maybe what she really needed to be asking Lewis to do was a little programming on the heads of both factions.
Leaving Jason to bring in the still-unconscious Victoria Givens, Lewis entered the house and moved up the stairs. Perhaps he should think of her as 'the Bitch' he thought, smiling inwardly. It was a very apt nickname. He opened the door to the room he'd designated as her cell, and a quick glance assured him that his instructions had been carried out precisely. Not that he had been particularly worried. His operatives knew better than to disappoint him.
The room had been walled off about two-thirds of the way across its width to remove access to windows, the new wall soundproofed and carefully painted to match the rest of the room. The scent of fresh paint lingered in the air. The remaining third of the room held his workstation. A bank of view screens was linked to fiberoptic camera stalks hidden at intervals near the ceiling, their combined field of view covering the entire room, the whole setup linked with the microphones and speakers wired into the system.
Lewis heard footsteps on the stairs, and moved to close the workroom door. Givens should be close to regaining consciousness, and he didn't want to risk being seen. He knew that if the woman figured out he was alive she wouldn't rest until she had found him, and that would put his mate and children at risk. To avoid that, he had taken pains to be sure he could see and talk to her without her being able to identify him. For times when his work required physical presence, Jason would be his proxy. He turned on the monitors and watched as Jason placed Givens on the bed then stepped back, waiting for instructions. Lewis activated the link to his headset.
"Stay there, watch her until she wakes. Some humans have adverse reactions to sedation. If she wakes up nauseated, take care of it, she's too valuable to lose to aspirated stomach contents."
Jason nodded and took a seat on the floor leaning against the wall. Sure that Givens had at least rudimentary training in anti-personnel techniques, and well aware that furniture could be broken and used as weaponry, Lewis had specified that the mattress Givens currently occupied be the sole furnishing in the room. Lewis watched the monitors, and waited. It didn't take long. Only a few minutes had passed when she stirred, groaning softly, lifting a hand to her head, then rubbing her mouth and licking her lips.
"Jason, water." Lewis ordered.
Jason nodded and got to his feet, moving into the attached bathroom. Givens sat up, looking around, clearly disoriented. His operative returned and handed the woman a paper cup full of water, which she gulped down quickly, then looked around again.
"Please, where am I?" she asked, trying to look helpless, and afraid.
Lewis sensed little fear and knew she was far from helpless, and knew Jason could sense that as well.
"Don't reply," Lewis instructed Jason. "Let her ask questions, but don't respond, and if she gets angry, leave the room."
Givens stared at the young man for a moment, then tried again.
"Who are you? Can you tell me what's going on?" She let her eyes slide over Jason's muscular frame caressingly. "If you help me get out of here, I could make it worth your while."
Jason continued his silence, standing with arms crossed, unmoving. Lewis could feel Jason's amusement, and echoed it. Did she really believe they could be so easily turned from their focus?
Givens' sultry expression turned to a scowl. "Tell me who the hell you are, where I am, and why I'm here!" she demanded.
Jason turned and Lewis hit the door release switch so he could leave the room. Givens shot to her feet, and swayed dizzily, still partially under the influence of the sedative. After a moment she moved more cautiously to the door, inspecting it. When she realized there was no handle on her side Lewis felt the hot flare of her anger, and she drew back a hand to hit the door, then the anger was dampened and she let her hand fall. Lewis' eyebrows lifted. She had decent self-discipline. It would be amusing to break that.
Lewis frowned. No, that wasn't his purpose. Breaking Givens was unnecessary, and would possibly interfere with his plans. He wasn't used to thinking of the welfare of a single person over that of his species. Of course, now that he thought about it, tampering with Givens might not be in the best interests of the many, either. She was quite useful just as she was, with only one small adjustment. That way when she was returned, Givens would spend weeks trying to convince her superiors that she hadn't been tampered with, and eventually they would believe her, because in essence she would be correct, save for one tiny alteration. He started to smile. This was going to be entertaining.
Sloan had heard a car arrive. Quickly turning out her light, she looked out her window to see Lewis, a blonde woman and a dark-haired man get out of a white Ford Explorer. They conversed for a moment, then Lewis entered the house. She heard him go upstairs. A few moments later the dark-haired man moved to the rear of the Explorer, bending over to reach inside. When he straightened, he held the ominously still form of The Bitch. Sloan swallowed heavily. Her heartless streak wasn't very deep, and she hoped the woman was all right. She saw the man take Givens into the house as the woman got in the Explorer and drove away.
Heavy footfalls told her the man was taking Givens to the third floor, where Lewis had gone. She sat, tense, listening, but heard nothing for some time. After about fifteen minutes she heard footsteps again, only one set. Someone had gone downstairs. More time passed quietly, but she was too keyed up to read. Oddly, she thought she smelled food cooking, and her stomach growled. Suddenly someone knocked on her door. She gasped in surprise, not having heard anyone approach-- and she'd been listening pretty hard. Trying to calm herself, she walked to the door and opened it cautiously. Lewis stood there, blue-eyed once more. He studied her for a moment, then smiled apologetically.
"Forgive me, I didn't mean to startle you. I thought you might be hungry. I've asked Jason to prepare a meal."
Sloan eyed Lewis askance, puzzled by the sudden charm. She couldn't help but wonder what he wanted.
He grinned. "Nothing at the moment, but there are things we need to talk about, and we might as well be comfortable when we do."
Sloan sighed. "Damn it, I hate it when you do that!" she complained. This 'reading her mind' stuff had to stop.
Lewis chuckled, a look of mischief flashing across his face. "I know. That's what makes it so irresistible."
Sloan found herself staring at him, agape. She would never in a million years have guessed he was even capable of that expression, let alone that she would ever see it. Lewis must have felt her astonishment, but chose not to comment further.
"Shall we go down?" he asked, still looking amused.
Sloan nodded. "I am kind of hungry. What is it we need to talk about?"
"Your part in the plan," Lewis said, moving aside to let her exit the room comfortably. She still didn't like getting close to him. Probably never would. He seemed to know that, perhaps even enjoy it.
"My part?" Sloan asked as they descended the wide, curving stairway.
Lewis nodded, preceding her into the dining room. The table was formally set for two. Whoever Jason was, apparently he wasn't joining them for dinner. Lewis seated her, which felt really odd to her, then seated himself and looked over at her.
"There are one or two things I need for you to do in order to facilitate the transfer between Tom, and Ms. Givens."
Before Sloan could ask what they were, a handsome young Eurasian man stepped into the room from the open kitchen, carrying two plates. He set one in front of Lewis, and gave the other to Sloan. As he turned to leave, Lewis held up a hand.
"Wait." When the younger man paused, Lewis turned toward Sloan. "Dr. Parker, this is Jason, one of my assistants. If I'm unavailable and you need anything, ask Jason." He looked over at Jason then. "Jason, this is Dr. Parker, she's working with us on this matter. You're to treat her as you would one of our own."
Jason nodded, giving Lewis a slightly puzzled look as he did so. Lewis didn't acknowledge the look, he just nodded toward the door.
"Eat, then go feed our guest. I wouldn't want her to feel neglected."
Jason nodded again, and left the room.
Sloan surveyed her meal, and was a little surprised to find a beautifully presented offering of spring greens, topped with slices of grilled chicken, herb-crusted goat cheese, and clusters of champagne grapes. The whole was drizzled artistically with a pale pink dressing. Pink? She cautiously used the tine of her fork to sample the sauce, and found that it tasted faintly of raspberries. She wasn't sure why, but she'd expected something more . . . prosaic. Like a bowl of canned stew, or chili and some saltine crackers.
The meal seemed to call for wine, but there were only water glasses on the table, and a pitcher of ice-water with lemon from which to refill them. It occurred to her suddenly that she'd never seen a Dominant, including Tom, drink anything alcoholic, or even something as ordinary as a soft drink. Mark had reacted to her offer of a soft drink with apparent revulsion. Tom did drink tea sometimes, but usually herbal. She could only remember him drinking coffee or black tea on a few occasions. Curious she lifted her glass and looked at Lewis.
Lewis looked at her, puzzled. "Excuse me?"
Sloan found herself inordinately pleased to have managed to confound him. "I mean, I just realized that I've almost never seen one of you drink anything else." Sloan clarified.
His expression cleared. "Ah, that. I tend to avoid anything which has a negative effect on the nervous system."
"So your people don't use sugar, caffeine or alcohol?"
"Well, I was speaking for myself, but in general, yes, that's correct. Although, there are times when the effect those substances produce is desirable or useful, so it's not prohibited."
Sloan nodded, filing that fact in her mental Rolodex. If they avoided such things, it was for a reason. She imagined that since Dominant brain functions were so much more efficient than a human's, it was likely that chemicals which had a slight to moderate effect on humans would have a much stronger effect on a Dominant. They probably got more of a 'buzz' from caffeine or sugar, and were more radically affected by alcohol as well. That line of thought posed interesting questions. Were there Dominants addicted to alcohol, sugar, caffeine, or tobacco, or had Nature removed the tendency toward addiction from their gene pool?
They ate in silence for a while, then Lewis spoke.
"I assume that Mark gave you the means by which to contact him?"
Sloan looked up. "Yes, he did."
Lewis nodded. "Good. I'll need for you to do so. Tell him that you want to arrange a meeting."
Sloan put down her fork. She wasn't going to let him get away with just giving her 'need to know' information. "I want to know the whole plan first."
Lewis studied her speculatively. "Why?"
"Because I'm tired of being a mushroom." Sloan said belligerently.
Lewis laughed out loud. "Don't like being kept in the dark and fed manure? Good. I was wondering if you would ever stand up for yourself."
Sloan stared at him, startled not only by the laughter and the fact that he knew what she meant by 'mushroom,' but that he thought she should be more assertive.
"Okay, then, tell me."
"It's very simple, really. We want to discredit both the human and the Dominant factions who are against coexistence, correct?"
Sloan gaped. "We do?"
"I assumed you would find that an acceptable outcome, am I wrong?"
"Um, no, but you . . . I mean, before, you were . . ." her sentence trailed off, she couldn't think of how to word what she was trying to say. Lewis understood anyway.
"I'm no longer involved in the implementation of what I now consider to be a misguided philosophy."
"Then you think they're wrong? You believe we can coexist?"
"I don't think you want to hear what I believe," he returned drily.
"Yes, I do."
He shrugged. "Very well then, but you won't like it. I've come to believe that evolution favors the continuance of our species over yours, that's clear when you look at the fact that cross-species matings produce Dominant offspring. All we had to do was sit back and wait. By taking an offensive stance we unnecessarily exposed ourselves to hostile actions. The attempt to speed up the conversion was ill considered."
Sloan frowned. He'd been right. She didn't much like it, but that was neither here nor there. The fact that he thought the Dominants were wrong to be actively trying to wipe out humankind was the important thing. It meant she could trust him more than she'd imagined she could.
"You're very quiet." Lewis remarked.
Sloan looked up. "Just processing." She forced herself to stop thinking about what he'd said, and focus on the present. "So, how do we go about discrediting both factions?"
"By exposing their agendas, and making it clear that there are other options."
It sounded simple. She knew better. "And just how are we going pull that off?"
"By having Mark 'rescue' Ms. Givens, ostensibly from our own militant faction and arrange to trade her for Tom, and have the exchange covered by the press. Mark's presence and actions will put both peace factions in the forefront, and make both militant factions look bad."
"She'll never go for it," Sloan said shaking her head.
"She doesn't have to. She won't know. She'll have to arrange for Tom to be traded for herself, at a time and place of our choosing to prevent another ambush. We'll set the rest up from there. We probably don't want to put Tom in in the public eye, though, so I'll have to make secondary arrangments for him."
Sloan stared at him, and slowly began to smile. "You're a genius."
He nodded. "Yes."
Before Sloan could react to that, he continued.
"So, you need to contact Mark, and Dr. Attwood. He's been very adept at setting up press conferences in order to further Ms. Given's agenda, but after what she tried to do to him, I suspect he will be willing to help discredit her. He can't know of my involvement, however, that has to be strictly confidential."
Sloan looked at him, troubled. "Well, I'm pretty sure I can convince Walter to help without much trouble, especially if Mark is involved, but I don't know if Mark will believe I kidnapped the Bitch. It's not exactly the most convincing idea."
Lewis chuckled. "An understatement if ever I heard one. However, you needn't convince Mark, leave him to me. I have ways of making certain I can trust him. All you have to do is arrange for him to come here. I'll take things from there."
Sloan studied him, not liking the sound of that 'I have ways.' He looked back at her calmly.
"Don't worry, Dr. Parker, I assure you, I won't harm him. I trained both Daniel and Mark."
Sloan heard the unspoken implication. If he had trained Mark, then Lewis knew his 'trigger phrase' and would use it to reprogram him, if it came to that, rather than harming him. She wondered briefly if he had also trained Lisa, the woman he'd shot in cold blood the night he'd held Sloan and Tom at gunpoint. If so, it hadn't helped her. She shivered and shook off that memory. Sloan still didn't like it, but what alternative did she have? She sighed.
"Okay, I'll call Mark. He can get me in touch with Walter. When and where do you want to meet?"
"Tomorrow morning, early, let's say seven. Have him come here, he's been here before, tell him to come to training house six. If he wonders how you knew about the location, just tell him you found out about the place from Tom, and are renting it temporarily. He won't be able to detect the falsehood over the phone, and if he goes to the trouble of checking it out, the paperwork will appear legitimate. I've already taken care of that."
Sloan nodded. "I take it I shouldn't mention your name, or anything about Givens?"
Lewis lifted an eyebrow at her, as if surprised that she had even bothered to ask. She returned her attention to her dinner, a bit embarrassed. Lewis finished his meal first, and stood up, plate in hand. She watched, surprised, as he carried his dishes into the kitchen, rinsed them, and put them in the dishwasher. Dominant domesticity still caused her the occasional moment of cognitive dissonance.
Of course, Lewis had a habit of causing those for her. She was beginning to realize that despite his own acknowledgement of the duality of Lewis/Llyn, he wasn't one or the other, he was both. He could scare the snot out of her one minute, and be an interesting and even pleasant companion the next. He was like a faceted stone, she mused, hard, bright, each face reflecting a different part of him. Sloan knew there had to be facets she hadn't seen yet, otherwise he would never have stayed with Carlie, and she would never have stayed with him. He kept those parts of himself very private, but they were definitely present.
Finishing in the kitchen, Lewis returned to the dining room and reached over to snag a peach from a bowl of fresh fruit in the center of the table, then went to stand at the window, looking out across the valley at the widely scattered lights of other houses. He closed his eyes, and lifted the fruit, inhaling deeply, then brushed his lips across it without taking a bite. The action was blatantly sensual, and Sloan could almost feel the soft down of the peach's skin against her own mouth. She shivered. Lewis opened his eyes and turned to look at her, frowning slightly, then his gaze moved to the fruit, back to her, and he smiled, and bit into it.
The shiver became a distinct twinge somewhere below her navel, and she forced herself to look away. Lewis was just twitting her, and she knew it, but even so he managed to provoke a response. Maddening. What made it worse was the suspicion that he hadn't even intended to do it this time. At least, not until he noticed her reaction. Still, it was getting annoying enough that if it weren't for Carlie and Tom, Sloan might even be willing to call his bluff. Except that she wasn't altogether certain it was a bluff. He stood at the window a few moments more, finishing his dessert, then walked into the kitchen to dispose of the peach-pit and wash his hands before turning to her again.
"Use the kitchen phone to make your call to Mark, not your cellular. If he has caller ID, I want it to return the correct address, it will make him less suspicious if everything appears to correlate."
Sloan nodded, and as he moved toward the door that led to the foyer and the stairs, she stopped him. "So, what are you going to do?"
He turned, his expression unreadable. "I have a little work to do with Ms. Givens before we release her. It may take some time."
Sloan tensed. "What kind of work?"
Lewis looked at her for a long moment, then finally replied. "Nothing untoward, Dr. Parker. Harming her would be counterproductive. I suggest you make your arrangements, and then get some sleep. We'll have a long day ahead of us tomorrow."
Lewis watched on the monitors as Jason attempted to coax Givens into eating. She refused, clearly concerned that the food was drugged. He smiled, shaking his head, and activated the microphone.
"Please, eat, Ms. Givens, Jason went to considerable effort to prepare the meal, and it's quite good. I assure you that the food is untainted. There are much more direct and efficient ways of drugging you, should we wish to do so."
She jumped a little, clearly startled. After a moment when she realized that the voice hadn't come from Jason, she got up and started to pace the cell, studying her surroundings with narrowed eyes.
"Who are you?" she asked after a moment.
He chuckled. "If I wanted you to know that, I wouldn't have gone to all this trouble, would I? Relax, no one intends you any harm."
"Then why am I here?" She turned in a circle, still looking for a camera, microphone, or speaker. Lewis knew she wouldn't see any, not the way they had been concealed. It would annoy her to know they were present, but not be able to identify them.
"You're here because you have something we want."
She waited a moment before responding to that, considering, perhaps weighing options. Lewis could feel her mind working, though he could not read her thoughts. She wasn't afraid, not really. She was a little nervous, but not enough to be useful. Her focus was really quite remarkable. In many ways, she was more like a Dominant than a human.
"What is it you want?" she asked finally. "Maybe we can make a deal."
Lewis laughed again, pleasantly. "A deal? Really? I've heard what comes of making deals with you, Ms. Givens, and I have no intention of being ambushed in a dark alley."
She stiffened, and he felt her shock. She hadn't thought anyone outside of her own hierarchy knew she had planned that. Her surprise was a chink in her armor. Good.
Givens tamped down her surprise almost as quickly as it had come and started to pace again, trying to cover her reaction. He smiled. She must have forgotten that wouldn't do any good. Either that, or perhaps she wasn't entirely sure who was holding her captive. It was quite likely that there were a good many humans, as well as Dominants, who would like to have her in a vulnerable position. That could actually work to his benefit, since there was no outward way for her to tell what they were. He switched over to private mode on the headset and spoke only to Jason.
"Jason, don't react to her emotions, and don't anticipate her moves. I want her to be uncertain as to our species."
Jason nodded almost imperceptibly. Lewis thought for a moment, and made a decision. "Leave her now. Take the food, dispose of it and return to me when you finish," he instructed Jason.
It was clear that she didn't intend to eat it in any case, and she would react faster to the Versed if her blood-sugar was low. Jason picked up the food, and Lewis hit the door release to let him out. Givens moved quickly toward the door, but Jason was much faster, and it was closed by the time she reached it. Her frustration was clear, both in her body language, and her emotions.
As he waited for Jason to return, Lewis pulled up the files on Givens and studied them, considering how best to achieve his objective. With most people it was relatively simple to know when they were fully hypnotized and responding to his control. In addition to the mental state which he could feel, the best test was to have them carry out an action they would not willingly perform under normal circumstances. Unfortunately, so far as he could tell there weren't any actions which Givens wouldn't be willing to do.
Lewis thought about how easy it had seemed that last time, to know when Tom had been properly programmed. What he hadn't taken into account then was that after his previous encounter with his mother, Tom's emotional reaction to her had been strongly negative, so persuading him to 'execute' her had been all too easy. He would not make the mistake of underestimating the effect of emotions on a hypnotized subject again.
He tried to see Givens in that scenario, and shook his head, smiling ironically. He had to admire her practicality and lack of conscience. It was quite likely that she would cheerfully murder both of her parents if she thought it would get her out of her current difficulties. No, though it would be harder and he would be less certain of the results, he was going to have to just go by 'feel' this time. He turned to the drug cabinet and filled a pressure-doser with the correct amount of Versed for someone of Givens' weight and height. Jason could administer it as soon as he returned.
Sloan hadn't slept well. All night long she'd found herself awake, staring at the ceiling, wondering what Lewis was doing to Victoria Givens. It had to be something. In the intense quiet of late night, she had heard faint sounds from upstairs. Nothing as radical as screams. Just footsteps, and a steady, soft drone of speech that almost never let up. Finally, around five, she'd given up trying to sleep and gotten out of bed, showered, changed, and gone downstairs.
Occupying herself in the well-appointed kitchen had been easy, and now a plate of cinnamon-honey scones sat on the stove. Sloan sipped her coffee and stared at the half-eaten pastry on her plate, wondering if her mother would find it amusing that she baked when she was stressed. A sound brought her head up, and she saw Lewis standing in the doorway. He looked tired. She'd never seen him look tired before. His head lifted as he sniffed audibly, an animal scenting the air, then he zeroed in on the scones. His eyebrows lifted and he looked a question at her. She felt herself blush a little.
"I couldn't sleep," she said defensively.
He smiled a little. "Neither could I. Different reasons, I suspect." His voice sounded rough, huskier than usual. She wondered if that had been his voice she had heard all night long. He picked up one of the scones and sniffed it. "Honey, not sugar?" he asked.
At her nod, he looked a little surprised.
"Thank you, then."
She didn't understand what he meant for a moment, then she realized he thought she had remembered that he didn't eat sugar and had substituted a non-refined sweetener out of consideration to his preferences. She hadn't, of course, but it didn't hurt to let him think that, especially if it earned her brownie points. She smiled sweetly.
He studied her for a moment longer and smiled knowingly. She kept forgetting about the empathy thing. One would think after living with Tom all that time, she'd be able to remember. Maybe it was because Tom usually hid it so as to seem more human, while Lewis played up his differences. He bit into the scone he held. She thought she saw a flicker of appreciation cross his face. Well, they were good. It was her mother's recipe, one Sloan had started to make frequently because Tom liked them. It was pretty much the only thing she knew how to bake. He finished the bite and looked over at her.
"Why couldn't you sleep?"
She sighed. "I'd suspect you would say it was an overactive conscience. What were you doing to her all night?"
He smiled. "Just trying to make sure we have an escape route if we ever need one."
Somehow Sloan didn't think she was included in that 'we'. "Did you succeed?"
He took another bite, chewing thoughtfully. Finally he swallowed, and spoke. "Hard to tell with that one, actually. I think so, but only time will tell. She's an exceptional human. If there were more like her, we might be in trouble."
Sloan stared at him, pretty sure she'd just been insulted. "Exceptional in what way?"
Lewis looked at her evenly. "She's more like us than like you."
She lifted her chin. "I don't think that's necessarily a good thing."
"In this case, I would agree with you." He glanced at his watch, and finished his scone. "Mark should be here any moment. Go wait for him in the drive and bring him in here."
Sloan thought about refusing but she figured it was in her interest not to put up too much of a fuss so she sent him a look that told him she didn't appreciate being ordered around, and headed for the front door, then stopped.
"He'll sense you and Jason. What should I tell him?"
"Jason is out running an errand, and I can guarantee Mark won't sense me. Just bring him in."
Sloan glared at him and stomped off toward the door. As she opened it, she heard a car pull up. Stepping out onto the porch, she watched Mark set the brake and step out, looking around warily. His gaze came to rest on her, and he inclined his head slightly in greeting.
"Mark," she acknowledged.
He studied her a moment longer, frowning. "You seem agitated, is everything all right?"
She took a deep, calming breath and nodded. "I'm fine, just upset over this whole nightmare. Come on in."
He took a step forward, then hesitated. When she looked at him curiously, he looked a little sheepish. "This place holds a lot of memories for me."
Sloan was surprised that he would admit that, and extremely curious. "Good or bad?"
He looked at the facade of the house thoughtfully. "Both."
That wasn't very helpful, Sloan thought with some irritation. She still had a strong suspicion this was the place Tom had spoken of when he had told her about himself and Lewis. Lewis said he had trained Mark as well, so perhaps he had done similar things here with Mark. Mark looked at her oddly all the sudden, and Sloan suddenly decided it was time to start remembering the periodic table of elements again. Handy thing, that.
Sloan walked into the house, leading Mark toward the kitchen. Lewis was waiting there, leaning casually against the counter. Mark stopped abruptly as he registered the presence of another person in the room. She had thought that with the dye-job it might take Mark a minute or two to recognize Lewis, but the sharp intake of breath Mark gave almost immediately told her otherwise.
Mark's voice sounded incredulous. She watched his expression go from amazement, to pleasure, to dismay, finally settling into a kind of blank shock. Sloan would have given her left arm to be empathic and be able to feel what he felt at that moment. Lewis smiled, and nodded.
"Hello, Mark, it's been some time."
Mark stared for a moment longer, clearly stunned. Finally he found his voice. "They said you were dead."
Lewis' smile took on that ironic tilt that tended to annoy Sloan.
"As you can see, 'reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.'"
As he spoke, Lewis moved forward, reaching out to take Mark's hand in his, clasping it firmly. For the first time, Sloan could see the action for the ancient ritual it was, Lewis was showing Mark that he carried no weapons and meant no harm.
"Frankly, I would prefer that they remain convinced of my demise," Lewis continued. "I had Dr. Parker call you here because with Richard's death, I suspect you are now the head of the coexistence faction. Am I correct?"
Mark nodded slowly, and Sloan saw his throat move as he swallowed. He was afraid. She didn't really blame him. Lewis was scary.
Lewis smiled again. "Good. Please, sit. We have a lot to discuss."
Mark set his jaw and took a deep breath. "If you think I'm going to help you against the humans, you're wasting your time."
Lewis chuckled. "Relax, Mark. I'm no longer engaged in my former line of work. As a matter of fact, I'm only here to assist Dr. Parker in regaining something she's misplaced, isn't that so, Sloan?"
Sloan flushed, thinking she wouldn't have put it quite that way herself, and Mark looked at her, startled, as if he'd forgotten she was even there. He frowned, his gaze moving back and forth between her and Lewis several times. Finally he sighed, shaking his head.
"I won't even pretend to understand what you're up to here, but I'll listen."
Lewis pulled out a chair and sat down, Mark took a seat across the table from him. Sloan stayed where she was, indecisively, until Lewis looked at her, then pointedly looked at one of the other chairs. She got the message, and joined them. She wasn't sure what she could contribute to the conversation, but she certainly preferred being included in it. Lewis began to speak, outlining his plan, and Sloan concentrated on catching all the subtleties. As one of her professors had liked to say, the devil was in the details.
Lewis stood at the window of an office in a building across the street from where Atwood had called the press conference. Since it was a weekend few of the offices were in use, and he had chosen a spacious third-floor office for his post since from there he could watch each facet of the operation unfolding below him. There had been several different buildings he could have chosen, but this particular one had a reflective coating on its windows which would render him at least optically invisible to casual onlookers.
Of course, a trained operative from either side would be able to detect him with various types of equipment, but he doubted anyone would even be looking. Givens' people were still in disarray after her kidnapping, and the militant faction of his own people were simply not as efficient as they had been with him at their head. To his disgust, none of his backdoors into the Dominant's computer networks had been discovered and disabled. Using them, he had discovered that his former superiors barely paid any notice to Mark and his growing coexistence faction. They were not considered a threat. That was a mistake on their part, but he found it a useful one.
He glanced at his watch. Ten-twenty. Mark should be here at any moment with Givens. His former protégée had now had nearly eighteen hours in which to make his case with Givens. For at least part of that, she would still have been highly suggestible state from the drugs and hypnosis, so Mark would have had an advantage there. Also, the way Mark and his people had 'rescued' Givens from the training house would have gone a long way toward tempering her mistrust. Jason, Michele, and John had played their parts well, lying strategically and messily 'dead' in places where Givens would see them as she was hustled from the premises by Mark, their 'corpses' reinforcing her belief in the rescue.
He had chosen Jason and Michele because Givens had already seen them, and John because his coloring, height and build were very similar to Lewis' own. That way, if Givens managed to break through the hypnotic conditioning he had instilled in her and remember anything of those hours, she would believe that the man who had drugged and hypnotized her had been killed along with his accomplices during the rescue.
He reviewed the entire operation carefully, looking for weak spots, or anything that could link him to it. He had been careful to use only operatives he knew were currently unassigned, and whom he had personally conditioned. They would not betray him. The only possible problem was his ownership of the training facility, and that was already layered so deep that he doubted it would ever be penetrated. If it was, he had flags in place to alert him. Still, it would probably be wise to sell it off. It had been a sentimental purchase, and sentiment was something he needed to restrict to his family.
That made him think of Carlie, and he smiled, wondering how she was coping with the children on her own. He had a feeling she wouldn't have called in help, she was stubborn that way. When he got back, she would need to be 'spelled' from her caretaking duties and indulged a little. He could think of a lot of ways to spoil her, many of which were as pleasant for him as they would be for her.
A message flashed onto his laptop' s screen, bringing his thoughts back to sharp focus. Good. Things were going according to plan. He saw a sleek black van pull up at the west edge of the square, and knew Givens' people had Tom there, waiting for the prearranged time. He looked toward the center of the square, at the platform and small crowd gathered, there. On the platform, Attwood looked nervous, even at this distance. Lewis wondered why. Despite their ineptness, Givens' people weren't so stupid as to shoot him in broad daylight in front of a crowd of reporters and television cameras. Perhaps he feared the Militants. That made more sense, since Attwood had no way of knowing that they were ignorant of today's events.
Attwood looked at his watch, stood, and went to the microphone. Lewis didn't bother to turn up the sound on the small monitor he had tuned to one of the stations carrying the press conference. He knew what Attwood was going to say; after all, he'd written it. It had been carefully crafted to assuage fears, and emphasize a spirit of cooperation and peace. Crowd psychology was a difficult thing, but he felt confident that his words would have the desired effect on those watching the broadcast.
As Attwood spoke, three identical white Explorers pulled up on the east side of the square. Mark emerged from the center vehicle and turned to assist Givens from it. Although she still wore the running shorts and sportsbra in which she had been kidnapped, she looked as coolly collected as if she were wearing Armani. She certainly didn't resemble the dazed, shaking woman he'd left in the cell the day before. Mark spoke to her and she nodded in reply, then they both began to walk toward the platform.
On the other side of the square the door of the black van slid open and three men got out. The center figure was Tom, the other two were Givens' men. They too began to walk toward the platform. Lewis glanced at his watch, saw the second hand sweep toward ten-thirty five, and looked up to see the lobby doors of the easternmost building open. A group of about fifty people emerged. To the west and north a similar phenomenon was occurring. He knew another group would be emerging from the building he occupied. Two hundred Dominants, all members of the coexistence faction, all creating visual chaos in the square. He smiled, pleased. Everything was moving right on schedule.
Sloan saw two men emerge from the van, holding Tom between them. She studied him anxiously, her heart pounding. He looked a little pale, a little dazed, but essentially all right. It was all she could do not to break into a run and fling herself into his arms. The only thing that held her back was the knowledge that if she didn't remain calm and follow the plan, she could put the whole operation at risk.
She heard Walter begin to speak, and looked anxiously toward the doors of the building closest to her. Where were they? Why were they waiting? Just as she thought she would go out of her mind with nerves, the doors opened and a large group of people walked out into the square. From three other buildings, comparable groups emerged. Yes! Finally! Instantly she returned her gaze to Tom, and saw the two men with him slow, looking around uncertainly at the unexpected arrival of so many bystanders.
As the crowd swirled around, Sloan started toward Tom and his escort. If all was going well, a woman who looked a little like herself would be approaching the trio from behind, accompanied by a man who superficially resembled Tom. In fact, Sloan could see the look alike couple, and she hurried to match her pace to theirs so they would arrive simultaneously. Tom looked up and saw her, his face lighting with recognition. She felt herself grinning foolishly, it was so good to see him again!
As they all converged there was a moment of confusion. Sloan ran directly into Tom, and he caught her to steady both of them, the action pulling his arms from the hands of his escorts. Sloan grabbed Tom and held on, resisting the urge to kiss him. Time for that later. Some of Lewis' operatives added to the distraction by running into the guards, grabbing them, turning them away for just long enough for Sloan to pull Tom off toward the group of reporters. She stopped at the edge of that group, shoved a pair of sunglasses into his hands and grabbed her hair, putting it up in a ponytail with a quick twist of the scrunchy she'd carried around her wrist. Tom looked at her, frowning fiercely, and leaned down to whisper in her ear.
"Sloan! What are you doing? We should get out of here!"
Sloan took advantage of his closeness to plant a quick kiss on his mouth, then pulled back a little and shook her head. "No, it's all right, the plan is working. Now put the damned sunglasses on, and at least pretend you're watching Walter."
He put on the dark glasses. Sloan had thought were a silly idea, but they really did make him look more anonymous. Without turning her head, she shifted her gaze toward Givens' men and saw them standing, momentarily at a loss as Lewis' operatives evaporated into the crowd and the men realized they had lost their charge. Then they spotted the look-alike couple running for the trio of Explorers at the east side of the square. As Lewis had predicted, the guards chose to follow the moving targets, not realizing their prey was stationary, and only a few yards away. The couple reached the vehicles, got into one, and drove off. The other two Explorers followed. Sloan knew that all three vehicles bore identical forged temporary license plates, just to confuse things further.
The two guards, seeing their prisoner getting away, pounded back across the square to the black van, which screeched out of its parking place seconds later, giving chase. Sloan released the breath she'd been holding, and caught Tom's hand in hers.
"Come on, this way."
She pulled him toward the building where she knew Lewis was waiting for them. As they got to the door, Sloan looked back and saw that Mark and The Bitch had reached the platform. Cameras and microphones were directed at them, and Givens looked visibly distressed as her gaze moved over the assembled media representatives. She started to shield her face with her hand, then clearly realized it was a lost cause and let her hand fall, shooting a fulminating glare at Walter. Walter returned her gaze calmly and moved away from the microphone to let Mark step up to it. Sloan laughed. So much for the Bitch's precious anonymity. Go Walter!
"What's funny?" Tom asked, looking confused.
"I'll explain it later, we need to get out of the lobby." She moved to the elevators and pushed the button, then thought better of it and turned to the stairs, dragging him with her.
"Where are we going? Why are we still here? How did you arrange all this? Who are all those people? I don't understand . . ."
Sloan paused on a step and put her fingers against his mouth as she gulped for breath, then smiled. "It's okay, Tom. You'll understand in a little bit. Just come on!"
She dragged him up the rest of the stairs to the third floor, and suite 303. Lewis must have sensed them, because she didn't even have to knock, the door opened as they got to it. Sloan moved into the room with Tom behind her, and as Lewis closed the door behind them, she finally gave in to her desire and grabbed Tom, kissing him fiercely. He responded instantly, wrapping her in the strong security of his arms, his fingers tangling in her hair as his mouth covered hers, molding it, his tongue stroking and tasting hers. She shivered and rubbed against him, reassuring herself that he was there, and whole, and safe. Safe . . . she pulled her mouth away from his and stared into his eyes.
"Did they hurt you?"
He shrugged. "Not enough to matter." He moved back a little, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Now tell me how you managed to . . ." His voice trailed off suddenly as he remembered there was someone else in the room with them. He frowned, and turned his head to look at Lewis who still stood beside the door, looking amused as he waited for them to finish.
"Congratulations Dr. Parker, Tom. That went extremely well," Lewis said when he saw he had their attention.
Since he was still in her arms, Sloan could feel Tom go rigid with shock as he looked at Lewis. The next thing she knew he had set her away from him and stepped in front of her, putting his body between her and his former mentor. She felt a surge of appreciation and love at his willingness to put himself on the line for her, and then smiled, remembering Carlie's words about how overprotective Dominant men tended to be. She moved to stand beside him again, putting a hand on his arm reassuringly.
"Tom, it's okay. Really. Lewis has been helping me."
He turned his head and stared at her, shocked, worried. His eyes searched her face as if looking for injuries. "Sloan, what has he done to you?"
Sloan scowled. "He hasn't done anything to me, unless you count annoying the hell out of me with pretty much every other sentence."
Lewis chuckled at that, and Tom's attention swung back to him, his expression a snarl.
"I'll kill you if you've tampered with her."
Lewis returned Tom's glare calmly. "I haven't, Tom. Neither of us are lying to you. Surely you can feel that."
Tom frowned and looked from Sloan to Lewis, and back. "If you've programmed her she wouldn't know if she was lying or not, would she? I don't believe you. Why would you help her unless it furthered your own agenda?"
Lewis was silent for a long moment, then he sighed, and moved forward a few steps, reaching for Tom's hand as he had Mark's a day earlier. Except he didn't just shake Tom's hand and release it. He held it, and stared into Tom's eyes.
"I haven't done this for anyone except my mate in over twenty years, Tom, so understand that this won't be repeated."
Tom looked puzzled, but nodded. Lewis closed his eyes. Sloan heard Tom gasp and under her hand she felt a shudder run through him. What the hell was going on? Before she could do more than wonder, Lewis opened his eyes, released Tom's hand, and stepped back, turning away to stand at the window and stare out at the crowd below. If he hadn't been Lewis, Sloan would have said he seemed distinctly rattled. She looked at Tom, who also seemed quite flustered, though he didn't look angry or desperate any more.
Tom stared intently at Lewis' back until Sloan tugged on his arm and he finally looked at her. For a moment he only gazed at her blankly, as if he couldn't quite remember who she was, then suddenly he seemed to come back into himself and his expression softened noticeably, his gaze filling with a depth of emotion that took her breath away. He touched her face reassuringly, then walked over Lewis.
Fascinated, Sloan watched them, trying to make herself as quiet and inconspicuous as possible. There were things that needed resolving between them, and she wasn't sure they could do it with her in the room. Or at least she wasn't sure Tom could. Lewis probably didn't care one way or the other. Finally Tom spoke.
"You're upset with me."
Lewis turned and looked at Tom, his expression startlingly angry. Sloan had gotten used to seeing two emotions on Lewis' face. Amusement, and disdain. That was pretty much it for expressions. Anger was a new one. Lewis crossed his arms and stared at Tom for a long moment.
"Of course I am. You betrayed us!"
Tom held his gaze. "No. One cannot betray a cause in which one doesn't believe, and I never believed in it voluntarily. I was programmed to believe. The cause is wrong. You understand that, or you wouldn't be here today."
Lewis looked out at the crowd again.. "A mistake was made. We should never have gone on the offensive."
"Agreed." Tom said. "Then why are you angry?"
Lewis' gaze was icy as he looked back at Tom. "You know why."
Tom nodded. "I know why. I want to hear you say it."
Lewis glared at Tom for long moment, then he nodded. "Very well then. You betrayed me. You gave them my name, my secrets, my self . . . everything."
Tom shook his head firmly. "I didn't betray you. If you hadn't come after me, they would never have had more than your name and a vague idea of your position in the hierarchy."
Lewis's hand flashed out and he grabbed Tom by the back of his neck, bringing their faces so close their noses were almost touching. "Damn you, you left me!"
Tom reached back to put his hand over Lewis'. "I didn't want to, I had to. You were destroying me."
Lewis flinched and let go abruptly, taking a step back. "No. I would never have harmed you."
"Not intentionally, no. But you kept trying to get inside me, to understand me, and if you had done it as the person you were then, you would have destroyed me, intentionally or not. Can't you see that?"
Lewis looked at him curiously. "'As the person I was then?'" he asked.
Tom nodded, looking a little puzzled. "You're no longer that person. I don't know exactly who you are any more. Lewis is still part of you, but there's much more at the same time. You're someone else now."
Lewis stood there for a long time without speaking, then finally he nodded. "Interesting that you could sense that. You're correct, I'm not the same, just as you're not the same."
Tom nodded. "Exactly."
They were silent then. Sloan could almost feel the tension in the air. The bond between the two of them was still there, despite her, despite Carlie. She suspected it always would be there, though they would not likely act on it at this point in their lives. It was odd, she didn't feel jealous. She'd thought she would, but this wasn't something she could be jealous of.
Something outside the window caught Lewis' attention then, and he turned, all business now.
"The press conference is finished. It's time to leave. We have to do it now, with the rest of the crowd, or we may be noticed. Come on."
He turned off the small television and handed it to Tom, who took it, smiling a little as Lewis shut down his laptop, unhooked it from the telephone line, and picked it up. Lewis caught the expression on Tom's face and lifted his eyebrows.
Tom smiled. "Feels just like old times."
Lewis grinned. "It is familiar, yes." He looked at Sloan. "In some ways, at any rate."
Without saying more, he left the office. Sloan moved to Tom's side and they started down the winding flights of stairs toward the parking garage. After they'd completed one circuit of the stairs, Sloan started to notice that Tom was moving more slowly. Halfway down the next flight, she realized he was looking awfully pale, and she stopped him with a hand on his arm. He almost dropped the television set he was holding, and she rescued it as he closed his eyes, swaying slightly.
"Tom?" Sloan exclaimed, concerned. "What's wrong?"
He shook his head, swallowing heavily. "Nothing, I'm fine. Just a little. . . tired."
From below them, Lewis turned and looked back at them, his eyes narrowing as he studied Tom.
"What did they use on you?" Lewis asked.
Tom shrugged. "Not sure, couldn't pick out anything familiar. Probably a cocktail. "
Tom shook his head. "Don't think so. Not that worked, anyway. In the last couple of days they were probably using an anti-psychotic."
Lewis absorbed that information expressionlessly, though Sloan couldn't help a gasp.
"Isolation?" Lewis asked.
Tom nodded. "Yes, for awhile. I lost track of time, don't know how long it was."
Sloan had no idea what Tom meant by that but Lewis clearly did. His jaw tightened. He thought for a moment, then came back up to where they stood and relieved Sloan of the electronics. "Bring him, make sure he doesn't fall down the stairs."
Tom started to object to that but Lewis was already half a flight ahead of them by that time, so he subsided. Sloan pulled his arm across her shoulders, smiling.
"Hey, any excuse to get my hands on you," she joked, trying to take the sting out of Lewis' assumption of weakness. Tom smiled wanly, and let her lead him the rest of the way down. That scared her. It wasn't like him to give in like that.
In the garage, Sloan steered Tom toward the green Outback wagon Lewis had assigned her earlier, and was surprised when Lewis accompanied them instead of going toward the BMW he had reserved for himself. He saw her expression of surprise and answered her before she even asked the question.
"I was going to turn you two loose to lie low until Mark and Attwood finished making things safe for your return, but I think I need to keep an eye on Tom. I suspect these effects are temporary, but I need to make sure they didn't do any permanent damage. Since we'll be traveling together, this vehicle is preferable, as it will attract less attention. It's a little riskier to go in one car, but it's a long drive and this way Dr. Parker and I can take turns at the wheel. "
"What's a long drive?" Tom asked, looking from one to the other of them.
"Home." Lewis replied "You're coming with me. It's safer than any safehouse we could find here, and that way I can attend to you without being away from my family any longer." He frowned absently. "I should have thought to bring a cleanup kit, I can't believe I didn't. I've been out of the game too long. I'll have to put one together on the way."
"What's a cleanup kit?" Sloan asked, feeling lost.
"A kind of interrogators' first-aid kit," Tom replied absently as he steadied himself against the car.
Sloan looked at him worriedly as she dug the keys out of her purse. Even when Ed had administered the conversion serum that had made him so ill, Tom had hidden that from her, not wanting to worry her. For him to be so clearly 'out of it' concerned her tremendously. While driving the Pacific Coast Highway with Lewis wasn't exactly her idea of dream vacation, she was actually glad Lewis had decided to stay with them. Having Tom in Lewis' hands right now was probably the best possible situation. Of course, now that she thought about it, she realized that if even Lewis was concerned about Tom, then things were worse than she'd thought. Her hands shook a little as she unlocked the car. She just hoped Lewis could fix things.
As she drove back from town toward the cabin they had rented, Sloan tried to distract herself from worrying about Tom by thinking of trivial things like the name of the town. She wondered if the town's founders had named it "Weed" that because it 'sprang up' like one, because that's all they could grow in their yards, because they grew a lot of marijuana there, or just what? That line of thought didn't distract her long enough, though.
The fact that they had stopped for the night was really worrisome. Considering how much Lewis wanted to get home, Sloan had assumed they would drive straight through. However, they were only halfway there when Lewis had announced they were stopping. As he'd spoken, his gaze had gone to Tom, and she'd guessed he must be the reason. She'd been concerned even before that, since Tom had been quiet and lethargic, speaking in monosyllables only when spoken to, but the stopping thing scared her. The fact that Tom didn't react to her fear scared her more.
Lewis had gone through the town, taken the next exit, and driven straight to the resort where he'd gone inside and booked a private cabin. She wondered briefly if the place was owned by Dominants, but the New-Agey atmosphere that pervaded the place had made her decide it must not be. She really couldn't reconcile crystals and aura-readings with Dominants. Still, how had Lewis known it was there? Did Dominants go on vacations? For that matter, how was he paying for it all? The big A-frame he'd rented couldn't have been cheap. It could easily sleep a dozen people, and it even had a sauna and spa fed by the hot-spring.
She glanced over at the two bags which had cost her upwards of a hundred dollars, and was glad Lewis had handed her not only a shopping list but also a wad of cash, because between the herbal teas, tinctures, extracts, supplements, vitamins, and various other items, the final total had been surprisingly high. Buying food on top of that would have really cleaned her out. Absently she wondered just where Lewis' money came from. He always seemed to have plenty . . . more than plenty, actually. Just looking at the houses he owned told her that much. She had never realized that being what amounted to a terrorist was a lucrative profession. She thought about her own meager savings and made a rueful face. Obviously she'd chosen the wrong line of work.
Thinking about work reminded her that she wished she had access to her lab right now. She wanted to run a DNA scan on Tom, to make sure he wasn't trapped somewhere between human and Dominant by the serum Ed had given him. She was afraid that was what was causing his lethargy and lack of empathic response rather than something that The Bitch and her minions had done. She'd tried to tell Lewis about her fears when they'd arrived at the cabin, but he'd just told her he would take care of things, and sent her to town to pick up a list of miscellaneous stuff as long as her arm, plus something for dinner, specifically not meat. She knew neither Lewis or Tom were normally vegetarians, so that had surprised her.
She'd protested Lewis' high-handed order immediately. The last thing she wanted to do was leave Tom, especially to go shopping, of all things. She'd been angry with Lewis for even suggesting it. However, when he'd taken her aside to quietly explain that he needed the things he'd requested in order to help Tom, she had started to cave in. The surprisingly gentle way he'd assisted Tom into the house and settled him in one of the bedrooms had made her capitulate completely. It had reminded her just a little bit of watching Lewis with his children only a few days earlier. That was the only thing that had made it possible for her to leave.
Frustratingly, it had taken her the better part of two hours to round up everything Lewis had asked for, plus find something she thought they would all eat. Fortunately the place where she'd found the herbal products had been attached to a natural-foods cafe. Along with some other food and juices, she'd picked up some vegetarian sushi, since Tom usually loved sushi and she hoped it would tempt him to eat. Their earlier stop at a fast-food Mexican place had been less than successful. Another worrisome sign, since Tom usually ate like a horse.
Passing the covered bridge that led into the resort, Sloan felt a huge sense of relief. Almost there. Finally she pulled up in front of the cabin, grabbed the bags, and headed for the door. In the blue haze of twilight the lights from the cabin seemed warm and welcoming, and a faint hint of woodsmoke drifted on the air. She used the key to let herself in, and took the bags into the kitchen, quickly shoving the food into the refrigerator and leaving the everything else on the counter while she went upstairs to check on Tom.
He wasn't in his room. Quickly she checked the other bedrooms. Neither Tom, or Lewis were anywhere to be seen. Her pulse skyrocketed as panic set in. Where were they? Where was Tom? Had Lewis had taken Tom to the hospital? No, that was an absurd thought, she realized. Lewis would never risk such a thing. She forced herself to calm down, and thought about logical possibilities. She checked the bathroom, it was empty. Clearly they were not in the kitchen or the bedrooms. She hadn't seen either of them when she'd passed through the large living-room on the way to the kitchen, either. So, unless they'd gone out for a walk, which seemed doubtful, that only left the spa or sauna.
As Sloan hurried back downstairs it occurred to her that she hadn't once thought that Tom might be in danger from Lewis. She was a little shocked by that. When had she started trusting Lewis so completely? She opened the kitchen door and stepped out behind the house where the small sauna and spa were. The spa, steaming in the cool evening air, was empty. The smell of woodsmoke was stronger out here, as was the slight tang of sulphur from the natural hot-springs that fed the spa. She moved toward the small shed that housed the sauna, and stopped just outside the door, suddenly nervous about opening it although she couldn't figure out why she should be.
Resolutely she put her hand on the latch and pushed it open. It was occupied. Definitely occupied. She understood now why she'd been nervous. Her subconscious had known what to expect, even if her conscious had forgotten. Clothing was generally de-trop in a sauna. Fortunately Lewis had his back to her this time. She registered an odd pattern of small, squarish black marks on his back below his right shoulder blade, before her gaze slid lower, lingering momentarily before embarrassment shifted her gaze to Tom where he lay prone on one of the redwood tiers, a towel underneath him, but nothing on top.
Tom's skin glistened with sweat. It gleamed in the trough of his spine and puddled in small of his back. Just above that was a pattern of small black marks, identical, she realized, to those on Lewis' back. She knew it was a tattoo, the same one they had found on the mummified girl they'd recovered from the desert. None of the other Dominants they had examined had borne those markings, but both Lewis and Tom did. What did they mean? As she stood there in the doorway speculating, Lewis turned to face her, a look of mild annoyance on his face.
"In or out, Dr. Parker, not both," he said drily.
His backside had been difficult enough to ignore. Front was . . . Sloan gulped, stepped back, and shut the door. She didn't remember going back to the house, but the next thing she knew she was inside, leaning against the door frame with her hot face pressed against the cool enamel-painted surface of the kitchen wall. The heat in her face, and elsewhere, had absolutely nothing to do with the heat of the sauna. She couldn't help it. Seeing them there, together like that, she had instantly remembered Tom's damned 'Program Forty-three' story. God, she really was a pervert. A disgusting nasty pervert. She went through the periodic table of elements again. She'd been doing a lot of that lately. Finished with that, she took several deep breaths. Yes, that helped.
Wait a second. Together like that . . . just what the hell was Lewis doing in there? Tom was sick! He shouldn't be . . . Well, maybe she shouldn't jump to conclusions just because they were both nude. Nudity didn't have to mean sex. It was just her prurient nature supplying that idea. Her face got hot again, this time with embarrassment. She'd never realized what a dirty mind she had. But she had to know. She couldn't just stand around and wonder.
She took a step toward the door, and stopped. She couldn't go in there fully clothed, but neither could she go in there stark naked. It just wasn't in her to do that, not in front of Lewis. Tom, no problem, but not Lewis. She dashed to the front room and pawed through her bag, grabbing out a t-shirt. Quickly she skinned out of her sweater and pulled on the tee, then took off her jeans, shoes, and jewelry. Putting her hair up in a quick knot, she headed resolutely for the back porch again. Whatever Lewis was doing, she wanted an explanation.
Lewis waited for Sloan to reappear. She would, of course, once she'd had a moment to get over her embarrassment and her curiosity reasserted itself. In the meantime, he crouched down next to Tom and put a hand on his shoulder, waking him from the half-dozing state he was in. When Tom looked at him, Lewis handed him a cup of lukewarm water.
"Drink, you need to replace fluids."
Tom propped himself up on his elbows and took the cup, draining it quickly. Lewis refilled it from the pitcher on the floor and watched while he drank that as well. The sauna should help Tom's system rid itself of the toxins the humans had been feeding him. His body could probably have dealt efficiently with ordinary sedatives, but psychoactive substances wrought havoc with a Dominant's highly sensitive nervous system. After years of working with them, Lewis had dosage tolerances down to a fine art, but humans had no such expertise and tended to administer drugs in amounts that could cause permanent harm. He could only hope that such was not the case here. While there had been a time when he'd thought he would have to kill Tom, that time was past and circumstances had changed enough that he was glad it had not come to that.
He speculated for a moment what might have happened if he had done so. Things would be very different. He would never have been apprehended or spent those months in captivity, never escaped and been in such a state of mind that he went to Carlie instead of to a safehouse. He would never have seen, or held, or learned to play with his children. Each of those events had contributed to changing him. Had they never happened, he would be that earlier Lewis, not the person he was now. Strange. All this time he'd thought of his new self as a role he was playing, but now he found that it wasn't a role at all. It was part of him. When he'd tried to divest himself of that part of himself, it had refused to go, subtly rebuilding itself with each passing hour. He was both Llyn, and Lewis. Not one or the other. Both, inextricably fused.
Had he killed Tom, not only would he be different, but Carlie would likely be either a gibbering wreck, or dead, and his children would be growing up without the warmth of a family, something he would never have even considered or cared about before. He had no doubt that Marga would eventually have taken the children from Carlie, considering that her innate humanity rendered her an unfit parent. Given Carlie's extreme reactions when she had been held captive and separated from the children, he doubted she would have survived very long.
No matter what he'd felt at the time, after considering all the repercussions from Tom's actions, Lewis could admit that he was pleased by what Tom had done, rather than resenting him for it. There was still a part of him, his pride mostly, that smarted when faced with the realization that Tom had left him, but he had learned that pride was not something one should indulge too deeply.
Hurt pride was definitely part of his reaction, but there was also something else, something he really didn't want to think about, but he knew he had to face, and to face as the person he had become, not just as the partial-person who he had been before. He needed to resolve his feelings for and about Tom. Carlie had understood that. It was why she had sent him with Sloan. She might not have understood all the facets of those feelings, but she had known they were there.
He looked toward the door as he sensed Sloan nearing the sauna. She radiated a peculiar mixture of determination, embarrassment, and sublimated arousal. Lewis glanced back at Tom to see if the younger man had sensed her at all, and could detect no sign of response. Not surprising actually, since empathy was the function most affected by both drugs and sensory deprivation. Lewis had been through this process himself, both voluntarily as a personal experiment, and involuntarily while in captivity, and he remembered how the mind sometimes shut down those functions since it was too painful to keep trying to reach out, and failing.
The sauna door opened, and Sloan stepped in. He was amused to see that she was wearing clothing, though granted, not a lot of it-- just a t-shirt, and panties. Even so, it told him how uncomfortable she still was with him. He almost laughed aloud at that. For the most part he still couldn't really understand what it was Tom saw in her, but then, emotions were seldom rational. He was sure that none of his former associates would understand why he had withdrawn from 'the fight' to live with a woman whose nature, if not her genetics, was human; why he not only allowed, but reveled in the affection of his mate and children.
Sloan stood just inside the door and Lewis nodded to acknowledge her, and waved her toward the redwood decking next to Tom. She edged past him nervously and sat down near Tom's head. Tom didn't move. With his lassitude amplified by the heat, and his senses dulled by drug reactions, Lewis didn't think he was even aware of her presence. He was barely aware of Lewis. Lewis stood up.
"Did you get the things I asked for?" he asked quietly.
She nodded, her focus almost completely on Tom. "Everything's on the counter, except the food. That's in the refrigerator." She reached out, a little hesitantly, and put her hand on Tom's shoulder, her fingers fanning out over his sweat-slicked skin.
"Good," Lewis said. "I need to get to work with some of those things. You stay here, watch him, let him know you're here, let him feel you. I want him to start trying to reach you, empathically. He'll be more amenable to attempting that with you than with me."
Sloan looked surprised. "You think so?" she asked uncertainly.
Lewis smiled at her, feeling oddly compassionate. "At this point, yes. He's bonded with you now."
She brightened visibly at that, and the surge of pleasure she felt was quite intense. Tom stirred a little, lifting his head.
She smiled, and moved her hand up touch Tom's head, her fingers stroking through his damp, short-cropped hair. "I'm here, Tom. How are you feeling?"
"Fine." He reached up and found her hand, twining his fingers through hers, then let his head drop to the towel again with a sigh.
Sloan looked up at Lewis with lifted eyebrows. He nodded.
"Good. Like that, touch him, connect with him."
"Ah. . . in what way?" she asked cautiously, clearly wondering how far she was allowed to go.
Lewis grinned. "In any way he wishes. What he needs most of all right now is to feel, to be immersed in sensation and awareness. He has to know that when he reaches out, there will be something there for him to feel."
He suddenly remembered what it felt like to be desperate for sensation, and had to suppress a shudder. It hurt. He'd denied that to himself when it had happened to him, but this brought the pain back almost unbearably. Tom stirred, looking around. Lewis realized he'd let that feeling leak, and moved quickly toward the door.
"I'll be back to help you move him in a few minutes. He's almost reached his limit here, but I want him to sweat out as much of the toxins as possible. Get him to drink more water, keep him hydrated. You should probably do the same yourself."
He left without bothering to wait for Sloan's response. He knew she would take care of Tom, and he had to get out of there. The memories that stirred within him were too raw and bitter to be easily contained, and the last thing Tom needed right now was more pain. The night had cooled down considerably, and the cold air on his damp skin made him shiver. He stood there letting the cold soak into him, letting it distract him from his thoughts. He needed to be clearheaded. He had work to do.
Tom watched Lewis leave, and wondered if he had imagined that flash of distress he'd felt. It could well have been, since his empathic senses were almost completely inactive right now. He remembered Lewis had long ago told him empathic shutdown was a common side-effect of certain psychoactive drugs.
He deliberately tried to focus, tried to feel something from Sloan. Nothing. He was sure he'd felt a flash of pleasure from her a few moments earlier, but there was nothing now, and he could have imagined that too. While he had been captive, the numbness had actually been a relief, but now that he was free the absence of those perceptions made him feel crippled. His fingers tightened on Sloan's and he looked up at her, just to be sure he wasn't imagining her presence. She smiled at him, but the smile didn't reach her eyes, which were worried.
"So, you're 'fine,' hunh?" she asked, squeezing his hand in return. "You're such a rotten liar, Tom. Even Lewis is worried about you, so you must know I'm not going to buy that bridge."
Tom shifted onto his side and propped himself on one elbow so looking up at her didn't make his neck hurt. "He's not worried about me. He never worries about anyone."
"Then why didn't he leave us behind?" Sloan asked reasonably. "Why did he stop here for the night? He'd never have stopped if he wasn't worried about you, he'd have driven straight through to get home."
Tom tried to envision a world in which it mattered to Lewis where he spent the night. He failed. "Home is that important to him?"
Sloan nodded. "Ever since we left, he's been champing at the bit to get back home to Carlie and the kids."
Tom shook his head slowly. "Are you sure it's him? Maybe he's a clone. His hair is different."
"It's called 'dye', Tom. He's also been wearing brown contacts half the time, but they don't make him someone else either. It's still him. Be honest with yourself, you know it's him."
Tom nodded. He did know it. It was just hard to believe. He frowned as he remembered something she'd said a few nights before he'd been kidnapped. "You were right."
"Of course I was," Sloan said, grinning. "Now, what exactly was I right about?"
Her voice was light and teasing. It was strange not to feel that echoed by her emotions.
"Before I was taken, you said Lewis had changed. I didn't believe you."
"Oh that. Yes, I was right about that, too. But don't get too weirded out, in most ways he's still the same old annoying Lewis he always was."
Though Sloan's voice held irony and a hint of amusement, he'd felt a tiny tremor go through her when she spoke of his former mentor. Tom stared at her, trying to sense what she was feeling. Was it fear? Had Lewis hurt her in some way, or done something to her while they had been together? It came to him that something else might have made her shiver. Sloan and Lewis had been together in the training house for several days. Sloan was clearly more comfortable with Lewis than she had ever been before. Comfortable enough to come out here in next to nothing . . . .
Tom felt a sudden stab of jealousy. He needed to know she was his, to reassert his claim on her. He needed to feel her physically, to find reassurance in her touch and her response if he couldn't feel it any other way. With a surprising surge of energy, he shifted his grip from her hand to her wrist and pulled her down to him. She made a startled sound but yielded, and her lips opened against his as he kissed her. She tasted as he remembered, the unique flavor of her mouth stirring him. He shifted his mouth to kiss her eyelids, her cheek, and tasted the salt of her sweat, her moist skin cool against his lips in the heat of the sauna.
Instinctively he kept trying to feel her desire, trying to feel her need, and failed time after time. Frustrated by his own inability to do so he moved his mouth back to hers, kissing her harshly, his tongue searching out a response. She made a soft sound of pleasure in her throat and shifted position to make their contact easier. Her hands came up to touch his face, his chest, her fingers stroking his skin, sending shudders of sensation through him. At her full and unequivocal physical response, his jealousy receded, taking his sudden burst of strength with it, and he slumped back with a sigh.
Sloan followed him, tasting him as he'd tasted her, her hand urging him over onto his back. Her scent was strong and aroused, her nipples tight beneath the sweat-soaked shirt she wore. He lifted his hand to her breast, molding it against his palm, feeling the soft weight of it. Her hands moved on him, growing bolder, moving down his chest to his flanks, then brushing lightly over his sex. The heat of the sauna and his debilitated state interfered with his response. Sloan must have understood, because her hand moved away, back to his chest, and her kiss softened, became less demanding. After a moment she lifted her head, and put it against his shoulder with a sigh that sounded very contented. Tom touched her face.
She looked up. "What for?"
"Getting me out. I don't know how much more I could have stood."
Her eyes teared, and she put her hand over his. "Tom, how could I not? I love you."
He tried to shape the appropriate response to that, and found he couldn't. He was afraid to. What did he know of love? How could he assert he felt it when he didn't know if he did? He cared for her, more than anyone he had ever known, but did he love? Was he capable of it, after his upbringing? He still didn't know. Sloan looked at him with understanding in her eyes, but before he could figure out what to say, the door opened and Lewis stepped inside, wearing a pair of running shorts, but nothing else. Tom was surprised that Lewis had made even that concession to Sloan's sensibilities.
"Time's up in here," Lewis said succinctly.
Tom sighed in relief, both at the timely interruption, and the fact that he was being released from the sauna's intense heat. "Good. I was beginning to wonder if you were planning to serve me for dinner. I think I'm about done."
Lewis grinned. "I don't think Dr. Parker is interested in sharing that particular meal, Tom."
Tom chuckled. Sloan gasped, and Tom actually felt a flicker of her outrage at that statement. He hadn't imagined it earlier. He was starting to feel again, but only the strongest feelings, and only when he wasn't actively trying. Pleased by the realization, Tom swung his feet over the side of the bench and levered himself into a sitting position, then tried to stand. His knees gave, and Lewis stepped in quickly, catching him. Tom put his arm across Lewis' shoulders for support, embarrassed by his own weakness.
Lewis' joke had stirred memories, though, and between that, and the sensual touching he'd been exchanging with Sloan moments earlier, Tom felt strangely sensitized by the feel of Lewis' bare, sleek skin against his. Perhaps it was just as well he was not completely recovered. He knew a response to Lewis would probably trouble Sloan tremendously, even if it was purely autonomic. And, he wasn't entirely sure that was all it would be. It was disconcerting that even with how he felt about Sloan, and with her standing only inches away, he could still be affected this way just by Lewis' presence. Clearly Sloan had been right about more than one thing, that night. There was an emotional bond between himself and Lewis which he had failed to take into consideration.
Lewis slanted a look at Tom that said he'd felt Tom's reaction. Tom was glad that his face was already flushed from the heat, because otherwise his blush would have betrayed him to Sloan, who was watching him anxiously after his display of weakness. Lewis didn't comment, and after a moment he let his arm settle around Tom's waist as he steered him toward the door. The touch was impersonal, yet somehow intimate.
As always, Tom found himself wondering what Lewis felt. Even if all his senses were intact, Tom knew he wouldn't know the answer to that. The only time Lewis had ever allowed him to feel anything beneath the surface had been that brief and overwhelming moment of empathic contact a few hours earlier. He knew that would not be repeated. He frowned suddenly, wondering how he had felt that, with his empathic senses dormant as they were. The thought stopped him in his tracks, and he almost slid from Lewis' support as the other man tried to continue forward. Lewis shifted his grip to resume Tom's weight, and looked at him.
"Is something wrong?"
Tom shook his head, unable to figure out how to ask the question he needed to ask, and unwilling to ask it in front of Sloan, in any case. "No, nothing. Sorry, just dizzy."
Lewis' eyes narrowed, sensing the lie, but for whatever reason, he didn't call him on it. Sloan opened the door for them and they stepped out of the sauna into the cool night air. The sky was ablaze with stars and Tom stared up at them, wondering what they looked like to Sloan. He remembered the clarity and color of human vision he'd briefly experienced after Ed's serum had taken hold. Without the addition of his normal infrared and ultraviolet ranges, everything had seemed so much sharper and cleaner. Though his own vision was more efficient, it somehow seemed less desirable. It would be nice, sometimes, to be able to see the world more simply at will, to screen out the shifting auras and ripples of his additional range. He shivered as a breeze stirred, and Lewis guided him toward the redwood tub that steamed under the open sky. Tom wrinkled his nose at the sulphurous odor of the water, but Lewis nodded firmly toward the liquid.
"In, all the way," he ordered.
Tom knew better than to balk, not in his weakened condition. Besides, the mineral-laden water would rinse the stink of drugs and captivity from him. He started to step over the raised lip to get in and wavered, this time his dizziness wasn't feigned. He felt Lewis' hands on his chest, and Sloan's hands on his hips, and between them they guided him in. The water was hot, but not so hot as the sauna, and felt wonderful as it closed silkily around him. He ducked briefly beneath the surface to let the water sluice the sweat from his face and scalp, then pushed back up and let his head fall back against the edge of the tub, eyes closed.
A moment later a quiet whisper reached him, and he opened his eyes to see Lewis standing a few feet away with Sloan, leaning close, his hand on her shoulder, his mouth almost against her ear, his voice too low to make out words over the soft sloshing of the water in the tub. Sloan listened, nodded, and Lewis turned away and went back into the cabin. Tom frowned, but read no shift in her body temperature that would indicate an arousal flush. Sloan's expression as she slid in beside him also helped allay his momentary suspicion; it was warm, and loving, and completely open.
"Lewis said ten minutes, max, and he'll be back to help me get you out," she informed him as she slid over next to him, putting her head against his shoulder.
Tom let his eyes close. He was in an odd state, tired, but not sleepy. He relaxed, enjoying Sloan's closeness, the soft sound of her breathing, the touch of her thigh moving lightly against his with the drift of the water. He turned his head and rubbed his nose against her hair to catch a hint of her scent rather than the stronger smell of the water. He pulled her closer to him, wanting just to touch her, and laughed softly. Sloan lifted her head.
"What's funny?" she asked.
He shook his head. "Not funny, pleasurable. This just feels so good."
Her expression softened and he ached to be able to sense what he knew she was feeling, that sweet, strange tenderness that he craved. He stroked her shoulder, wishing he could feel her skin instead of wet fabric, but he understood her shyness around Lewis. He kissed her briefly, then sighed again, and let the moment just exist.
It seemed like only seconds had passed when he heard the cabin door open again, and knew Lewis was there again. Tom opened his eyes and looked up, surprising the other man with a strangely wistful expression on his face that was gone before he could really be sure he'd seen it. What was he thinking, Tom wondered? Something about him? Or did the scene remind him that his own mate was still far from here? He would probably never get the answer to that question. Lewis put down whatever it was he'd been holding, and stepped forward.
"Dr. Parker, if you would assist me?" he asked formally.
Sloan nodded and stood up, and between them they helped Tom out of the tub without incident. As he stood there dripping and shivering, Lewis bent and picked up the things he'd brought out, which turned out to be a large towel for Sloan, and a terry-cloth robe for Tom. Sloan wrapped herself in the towel, which Tom approved of, since her wet clothing clung to her like a translucent veil, emphasizing rather than hiding her body.
As he pulled on the robe, Tom could smell Lewis' scent on it, as well as a female's. It wasn't Sloan's scent, but it was slightly familiar. Since it was Lewis' robe, then the scent was probably Carlie's. Somehow that made it seem too intimate a gesture for Lewis to let him wear it, though Tom wasn't sure why. Lewis was very practical, and since Tom had only the clothing he'd been wearing, it made sense for him to borrow other things from Lewis. Trying to sort out his feelings, he let Sloan and Lewis take him into the house.
Sloan went to shower, and Lewis sat Tom down at the kitchen table and pulled a chair over next to his so he could administer a series of perception tests, which Tom performed well, though he was clearly tired. It was obvious from the results that Tom was starting to slough off the effects of the drugs. His gaze was sharper, his movements more coordinated. Lewis nodded, pleased by his progress, and handed him the tumbler of systemic purifier he'd put together. Tom looked at the murky liquid and sniffed it suspiciously, lifting his eyebrows.
"Does this taste as bad as it smells?"
"Probably. Drink it anyway. You need it."
Tom looked at the glass for a long moment, and sighed. "Sloan showed me a movie once, about a woman named 'Poppins'. She gave rewards for taking unpleasant medication."
Lewis chuckled. "Sloan and Carlie apparently have very similar taste in films." He got up and went to the counter, picking up the bottle of ginger-echinacea lemonade. "Here, you can have this when you finish that."
Tom grinned. "I never thought you'd resort to bribery."
"It's not bribery, it's manipulation," Lewis said in mock-offense.
"Of course," Tom said drily, lifting the glass. He took a deep breath, and started drinking. After three big gulps he paused, gagged audibly, and shot Lewis a filthy look.
"There's dirt in this!" he accused, scraping his tongue against his teeth like a cat eating peanut butter.
"Not dirt," Lewis explained. "Activated charcoal. It will help your system filter out all the remaining contaminants."
"Have you ever tasted this stuff?"
Lewis nodded. "Actually, yes. Several times. I've found this combination of ingredients effective at speeding recovery. It's unpleasant, but drinkable."
Lewis had gambled that Tom wouldn't be able to resist the unspoken challenge, and he was right. Tom drained the glass, then grabbed the lemonade out of Lewis' hands and chased the purifier with the more palatable liquid. Finally he put down the bottle and sighed.
"I suppose you expect me to thank you?" his former student said, sounding anything but grateful.
"Not yet. Perhaps after you feel the effects." Lewis studied Tom closely, and listened for Sloan. He could hear the shower running upstairs, knew they had a reasonable length of time in which to talk without Sloan's presence. He asked his question. "You lied about something out there. Why? What didn't you want her to hear?"
Tom stiffened and for a moment Lewis thought he would refuse to answer, but finally he answered the question with a question.
"How did you do that, earlier? How did I feel you when I can't feel anyone else?"
Lewis went still. He had thought that perhaps Tom had been too drugged to realize what he'd done, but apparently not. He studied the younger man for a long moment, then shrugged with studied nonchalance.
"It's an ability I have, a mutation of a mutation, if you will. I can force rapport on someone else, if they're sensitive to begin with. It's not a particularly useful ability and I rarely utilize it, but it seemed the most effective way to convince you at the time."
Tom stared at him, his gaze unreadable. "Can you control what I feel? Tell me anything you want?"
Lewis shook his head, for some reason compelled to be honest. "No, I can only give what I feel, and feel what the other feels. It's not controllable, which is why I rarely use it. In general I prefer that others not know what I'm thinking, or feeling. Frankly, I've found only one situation in which it's even comfortable to use." Thinking of that circumstance brought Carlie to mind, and Lewis wished he were home. If he'd thought Tom could have waited another ten hours, he'd have far preferred to drive straight through. Ultimately he hadn't been able to justify the possibility of causing permanent damage to Tom by indulging his own desire to be home sooner.
Tom sat up straighter. "I felt something, just now."
Lewis lifted his eyebrows. "It's probably the purifier."
"I meant an emotion," Tom clarified seriously, though Lewis sensed amusement beneath the surface. "It was just a flicker. Hard to identify, but it seemed like desire, or need."
Lewis kept his face impassive, and glanced up at the ceiling. "Dr. Parker has a very noisy mind."
Tom stared at him, then slowly smiled. "She does, but it wasn't her I felt."
Lewis looked back at him evenly. "Perhaps an animal outside."
"An animal? Genus Homo, species Dominant, perhaps? Lewis, admit it. I felt you. I recognize the way you feel, especially after this morning. I can tell when it's you."
Lewis sighed. There was no point in arguing, the other man was right. He nodded. "Yes, it was me. I want to be home, that's all."
Tom grinned, pleased to have won the round, then just as suddenly, he sobered. "I always wondered what it would be like to be inside you."
Lewis stared at a spot in the pine paneling that walled the kitchen, noting absently that the pattern of one particular knot formed a kind of wizened face with a hooked nose. "Now you know."
"Yes, in one way."
There was only one way to interpret that comment. Lewis deliberately caught the feelings that it brought to the surface and shoved them down deep once more as he shifted his gaze back to Tom, sharply, his gaze narrowed. "The only way you ever will," he said quietly.
Tom nodded. "Yes, I assumed that. You would never make yourself vulnerable to someone that way."
Though his impulse was to stand and pace, Lewis controlled it and deliberately slouched in his seat, pretending ease. "Excellent analysis, Tom. You were always one of my best students."
Tom apparently sensed an opening, and went for it. "Why does vulnerability frighten you?"
Lewis fought his fear down again, and deliberately reversed the question. "Doesn't it frighten you?"
The other man nodded. "Yes, but not the way it does you. Sometimes there's pleasure in it. You taught me that, so at some point you must have known it yourself. You just don't want to acknowledge it."
Unable to stay seated any longer, Lewis rose smoothly and went to the refrigerator, taking out the food Sloan had brought. It gave him an excuse to move that wasn't an admission of unease. He put the food on the counter and closed the refrigerator door, then turned to find that Tom had followed him. The younger man leaned forward, putting his hands against the refrigerator door on either side of him, caging him. Lewis knew he could move the other man easily, especially in his weakened condition, but he didn't want to hurt him. Couldn't hurt him.
"Tom, move." He made the words an order without raising his voice.
Tom shook his head. "No. I need to know why I was important enough that you risked your anonymity to help Sloan free me."
Lewis stared back at him. Tom was so close, so fierce, his emotions a mesmerizing tangle of intensity. He found himself smiling, remembering how that intensity had tasted. "Isn't that obvious, Tom?"
"With anyone else it might be, but not with you. Say it. Tell me. For once in your life, let yourself be vulnerable, it won't kill you."
Lewis shuddered and shook his head. "It might. I learned that lesson well, though I never taught it to anyone else quite the way it was taught to me."
Tom looked at him curiously, obviously waiting for him to continue. Lewis realized that his own subconscious had just neatly set a trap for him. He could refuse to continue and prolong the ordeal, or he could tell Tom the truth, which was a different ordeal in itself. He weighed the options, and realized that he owed Tom the truth. Perhaps in a way, speaking of it would free him from it.
"Do you know who trained me?" he asked Tom.
Tom looked puzzled. "Marguerida, but what has that got to do with anything?"
"Marga was my second trainer. Who was my first?"
"I didn't know there was anyone else. Who?"
Recognition lit Tom's pale gaze. Lewis had known it would. Adam was legendary, even to those who had never experienced him first-hand. Had humans known of him, his name would have been ranked in the august company of Torquemada, De Sade, and Mengele.
"Adam." Tom said softly. "I've heard of him. I didn't know he was a your trainer."
"Few do. He was my trainer, from when I was very young, and I loved him unconditionally, I would have done anything for him. However as I grew older and began to think more independently, we occasionally disagreed as to. . . methodology. He didn't appreciate my questioning his techniques. I made the mistake of challenging him publicly over the necessity of an action. He didn't react then. He waited, and planned, and began to draw me in, favoring me, teaching me the pleasure of vulnerability, as you put it, until he was certain that I trusted him completely," Lewis paused, and looked at Tom, waiting to see if he understood.
"He betrayed that trust." Tom said, proving that he did.
Lewis nodded. "I should have died. I probably would have, but that was when I discovered my unique gift did have one useful facet. I forced him to feel what he was doing to me, from the inside. I made him the victim instead of the aggressor."
"What happened then?"
"I don't remember very much. He left me alive, and sent Marga to find me."
"I don't know. I never saw him again. I later learned that no one has. After he left me, he disappeared. I don't even know if he's still alive."
Tom absorbed that and was quiet for a little while, then he looked up again. "It's the same, isn't it? You disagreed with Adam and I disagreed with you. Adam made you trust him and you made me trust you."
Lewis nodded. "As the saying goes, 'history repeats itself.' However, I learned from my history, and I chose not to repeat it. That's why I helped you."
"But it's not the same. Adam betrayed you, and you think I betrayed you. In both cases, you were the victim."
Lewis shook his head. "From one perspective, yes, but if you look at the situation through Adam's eyes, I betrayed his trust by disagreeing with him, which is exactly what you did with me. Once more, the same."
Tom pushed away, freeing him finally, and leaned against the counter, his expression thoughtful. "But that means he trusted you first. He must have, if you felt safe enough with him to disagree with him."
Lewis nodded. "Yes, certainly. I loved him, but he also loved me, as much as he was capable of. I can see that now. He gave me his trust first, which in his mind made my 'betrayal' that much worse."
Tom met his eyes challengingly. "And my betrayal of you?"
Lewis considered his words carefully, trying to find the line between not-enough and too-much. "I understand it. You had to challenge me for the same reasons I had to challenge Adam. If things had continued as they were, you would no longer be an individual, you would be an echo of me. In order to continue your growth, you had no choice but to make that separation."
"You make me sound like a rebellious teenager," Tom said wryly.
Lewis chuckled. "There is a similarity, though the consequences are rather more far-reaching. Rebellion is natural as a child matures, and given the way we were raised, this was the only rebellion possible for us."
"True." Tom studied his face carefully. "It's strange, this trust thing. You gave me that, too. I felt safe with you. I knew you wouldn't harm me, just as you knew you were safe with me. You even said as much. I stood there with a gun in your face and you told me I couldn't hurt you, and you were right. Do you have any idea how angry that made me?"
"I think I have some idea," Lewis said drily, remembering. "But I was wrong. You could hurt me. You already had, and you continued to do so. At first I wanted to hurt you back. For a long time I wanted that. It wasn't until Sloan came to me that I realized you were as trapped by the pattern as I was. The only way through it was to break it."
"So where does that leave us?"
"Outside the pattern, and aware of it. From here, I believe we're both intelligent enough to avoid falling into it again. We can break this chain."
Tom nodded, quiet for a moment, and Lewis waited, sensing there was more to come. Finally Tom looked up.
"There's one more thing, something I have to know."
Lewis knew what it was. It was obvious. It was the natural question for him. He relieved Tom of having to ask it. "Yes. The nature of it may have changed, you have someone in your life now, so do I, but that doesn't change the basic fact." Lewis hesitated for the first time, it was very difficult to say what he felt, so he modified it. "You are important to me."
It was enough. He felt the flare of pleasure and satisfaction from his former student. It wouldn't have been enough for Carlie, she had more human needs, but for someone else who had been raised as he had, it was enough. He didn't have to ask the same question of Tom. He could feel the answer.
Tom turned and started unwrapping the cellophane from one of the rolls of sushi Sloan had bought. "Hungry?"
Lewis nodded, recognizing the end of the conversation, relieved that it was over, and with such relative ease. He opened a cabinet, got out some plates and set them on the counter.
"That wasn't what I was going to ask, you know," Tom said casually.
Lewis turned, surprised. "What?"
"A minute ago. I would have asked that, eventually, but I hadn't quite gotten to that one yet. I had something else in mind."
"And that was?" Lewis' curiosity was definitely provoked. He rarely misread anyone he knew as intimately as he knew Tom.
Tom grinned. "I was going to ask about that time at the training house, when it was just you and me. Was that training, or something else?"
It took Lewis a few seconds to make the necessary connections, then he remembered, and started to grin. "You've been wondering that all this time?"
Tom nodded. Lewis chuckled. "I imagine that must be really irritating, not knowing."
"I think that sums it up pretty well," Tom agreed. "So, what's the answer?"
Lewis started to portion out the food, ignoring the question. As Tom realized he wasn't going to reply, Lewis sensed both amusement and irritation rising in him. Lewis waited until the irritation outweighed the amusement, and then moved, pinning Tom against the counter. He enjoyed the flash of surprise in the younger mans' eyes as he held him still with a hand behind his head, and brushed his mouth across Tom's, lightly at first, then more firmly as he responded.
The emotional response was as good as the physical, the startled pleasure, the acceptance, the quick flare of need. The kiss deepened mutually into a slick slow stroke of tongues that was difficult to draw back from, but finally he did, suppressing a sigh. It had gone as far as it could go.
Tom stared at him, and licked his lips. "I guess that answers that question," he said huskily. "It's a good thing Sloan takes long showers. I don't think she would understand."
Lewis drew back, grinning. "Sloan has been standing in the hallway eavesdropping for the last ten minutes."
A startled squeak from the hallway confirmed his words, and Tom's eyes got wide. He started to go to Sloan, but Lewis caught him by the wrist and held him, then looked at the door.
"Come in, Dr. Parker."
Sloan sidled in, her face a shade of fuschia that contrasted strongly with her pale blue shirt. She wouldn't meet his eyes, or Tom's. Lewis held out a hand to her, and she shot him a suspicious look, but put her hand in his. "Tom, in this, I think you've underestimated her." He transferred her hand to Tom's care and spoke quietly. "You do understand, don't you?"
Sloan nodded. "Yes. I think I do." She looked at Tom, her eyes searching his. "I'm not bothered, really."
Lewis chuckled at the blatant lie, knowing she was very bothered, but not quite in the way Tom might have assumed. Sloan's color rose again, but this time she glared at him.
"You just shut up. I've had enough of your double-entendres!"
That made him laugh outright. "Stay, you both need to eat, I'm going out."
After Lewis left, Sloan looked at Tom, feeling the need to explain. "I didn't mean to eavesdrop, I was going to come in, then I realized that you guys were talking. I decided I shouldn't interrupt, and I was just going to wait until you were done, but I couldn't help but hear some of it. I really didn't do it on purpose."
Tom chuckled, and moved to kiss her. She hesitated for a split second, and Tom frowned.
"It does bother you," he said, disappointed.
She shook her head firmly. "No, it doesn't." She took his face between her palms and kissed him softly, despite knowing that Lewis' mouth had just been there. Tom responded, tasting her, teasing her, and when she finally drew back, her breathing was fast, and a tight ache spread below her navel. "It doesn't bother me at all," she reassured him huskily.
He stared into her eyes, and finally nodded. "Good, because it shouldn't."
She smiled, pleased that he had taken the trouble to reassure her. She noticed the plates, and nodded toward them. "Lewis said you should eat."
"No, he said we should eat," Tom corrected her, looking at the assortment of food on the plates. "No meat," he commented with a slightly disgruntled expression.
"Lewis said just vegetables tonight. He didn't say why."
Tom nodded. "He never does. It's very annoying."
"He has a lot of very annoying traits. Thank goodness you only have about half as many."
Tom started to protest that, but she laughed and put her fingers against his mouth to stop him. "Don't bother to deny it, you know it's true. Fortunately you make up for it in other areas."
He subsided grudgingly at that, and picked up their plates, heading for the table. Sloan followed and sat next to him, eating a few pieces of the sushi herself, and sneaking the rest of her share onto his plate when she saw he was wolfing down the food as if he hadn't eaten in a week. Maybe he hadn't. She felt a pang of distress at that thought, and he looked up, frowning.
"Nothing, really," she started to say, then she stopped and stared. "You felt me?"
He considered that, and a slow grin spread across his face. "Yes. I did. It's coming back."
A surge of relief went through her. "Thank god! I was worried that it was something Ed's serum had done to you."
Tom shook his head. "No, the gene-therapy serum didn't seem to affect my empathic abilities at all, even before I reverted."
Sloan considered that thoughtfully. "Interesting. That seems to indicate that the ability isn't genetically linked to being a Dominant. Does that mean some humans have it as well?"
"I've always thought you were remarkably empathic, for a human," Tom said softly.
Sloan blushed, somehow more pleased by that statement than she would have been by a more ordinary compliment. Maybe it was because it gave them something in common. Tom finished the last of his meal, and reached across to take her hand.
"Let's go to bed," he said, his voice low and intimate.
She studied him for a moment, trying to determine his mood. In the sauna he hadn't responded sexually to her tentative caress. At the time she'd put it down to exhaustion, but the smoky warmth in his eyes now told her that might not be the case any longer. The nasty gunk Lewis had mixed up for him, combined with food, seemed to have made a huge difference. Sloan was certainly willing; and after all, Lewis had said Tom needed to be 'immersed in sensation.' She stood up, and led him upstairs to the room she'd claimed for them.
Tom dropped the robe and slid into bed with a sigh of pleasure. Sloan unzipped her jeans, stepped out of them, and placed them on a chair. She glanced at Tom and saw he was watching her through half-closed eyes. She turned away with a smile, and removed the rest of her clothing a little more slowly, teasing him a little just to see how he would react. Slowly she unbuttoned her blouse, taking it off, draping it over her jeans. Her bra came next, joining the shirt. Finally she hooked her thumbs into her panties and started to slide them down, then stopped, and left them on.
"Sloan," Tom said warningly, the way he usually did when she was about to do something dangerous.
She laughed and skinned out of her underwear, then moved over to sit on the edge of the bed next to him. "I was just trying to take it easy on you. You're not recovered yet."
He reached for her and pulled her down across him. "I'm tired, not dead," he told her succinctly, then found her mouth with his.
It seemed like forever since she'd been close to him like this, and the suggestive glide of his tongue in her mouth made her shiver with need. She shifted position so she was straddling him. There was no doubt about his response now, she could feel the hard length of him against her belly where they were pressed together. Sloan arched against him, sighing into his mouth, and his hands came up to her hips, caressing, cupping her buttocks, then straying lower.
She went still as his fingertips grazed the soft, damp folds between her thighs, parting her, stroking lightly. She lifted her mouth from his and dropped it to his ear, nibbling on his earlobe before stopping to whisper her request for a more intimate touch.
She felt him smile at that, and he gave her what she'd asked for, a finger circling the entrance to her body, then pushing up into her. Her hips bucked harder against him, her body working to find release as her need built higher. Tom turned his head and caught her mouth again, kissing her slowly, languidly, in delicious contrast to the rhythm he was building between her thighs.
A tiny quake shook her, and she realized with a shock that she was much closer to finding release than she'd thought possible so quickly. She got her knees under her and lifted herself over him, feeling his hands shift to her hips as she reached between them to hold him while she sank down and took him inside.
She moaned and shuddered as he filled her, over the edge instantly, her body pulsing in long, aching waves of pleasure. He gasped her name, his hands tightening on her hips, holding her hard against him as he pushed upward. After a long, long moment, he slowly relaxed back with a sigh. She slid down against his chest, nestling her nose into the curve of his neck and shoulder. He lifted his hand to stroke her hair.
"I guess I'm more dead than I thought," he said after a little while, his voice rueful.
She lifted her head and shook her finger at him. "Don't you dare apologize. I loved that!"
He looked puzzled. "You did? Why?"
She grinned, and leaned down to kiss him. "Because, silly, you weren't in control for once. That makes me all mushy inside."
He stared at her, if anything, more mystified than before. "Mushy?" he asked.
She sighed. "You wouldn't understand. Just believe me, I liked it."
He looked up at her, and the bewilderment faded and he smiled. "I do believe you. I can feel it, just a little." He reached up to stroke her face with gentle fingers. "I missed sleeping with you. I missed having you curled up against me, what did you call it . . .?"
Sloan smiled, feeling a surge of tenderness. "Spooning, because we fit together like two spoons. Yes, me too." She reached over to the night stand and clicked off the light, then nestled back against him as he turned onto his side. It was good to have him back.
Carlie put down her book and glanced at her watch. It was just after eleven, which meant Llyn would probably be home fairly soon. She was feeling as impatient as he had obviously been when he'd called that morning to tell her they were about to head out. He'd sounded extremely frustrated by the late start they were getting, making surly comments about Sloan and Tom's 'reunion.' She smiled, wondering how those two would appreciate becoming designated babysitters while she and Llyn indulged in their own reunion. Of course, since the little ones were fast asleep, there wouldn't really be any need for babysitting duties until morning.
Still, it was good to know things had gone well, and that Tom was safe. She'd read about the press conference on the Web, and figured Llyn must have had something to do with it, though she hadn't exactly figured out what. The Coexistence faction was being credited with the woman's rescue, which would be a huge step forward for them. She wondered briefly how the woman had gotten kidnapped to begin with. She had a feeling that Llyn, no, Lewis, might have been involved . . . but she really didn't want to think about that.
The wind rustled the trees outside the window, and the sound made her nervous. She sensed nothing though, not even the stray cat she'd taken to feeding, or the local racoon family. Funny how being alone in a big house could make you jumpy. For a moment she wished she hadn't sent Paul and Daniel away, telling them Lewis would be home 'soon'. It hadn't really been a fib, just a slight exaggeration. Eleven hours had been soon, in relative terms, and she'd been tired of feeling like a prisoner in her own home. She settled back down with her book and started reading again, stifling a yawn. There was no way she was going to let herself fall asleep before Llyn got home.
A car drove slowly by on the road outside, pausing for a moment in front of the house. Carlie almost got to her feet, thinking it might be Llyn, Sloan, and Tom, but she didn't feel any familiar presences, and the car moved on. She sighed in disappointment. She should have known it wasn't them. They'd have had to be breaking land speed records to have made it home this fast, and Llyn never broke the speed limit. He said it attracted too much attention. She tried to concentrate on her book, but the letters blurred. The fact that it was a dry-as-dust textbook didn't help any. She yawned again, and closed the book, leaning back against the couch with a sigh, just planning to close her eyes for a little while.
Carlie woke with a start, her empathic sense warning her that there were strangers near the house. She looked at her watch automatically, and frowned. It was pretty weird for anyone to be calling at midnight. For a moment the only thing she could think was that Llyn might have had an accident and the cops had come to notify her, then she got ahold of herself and reached out empathically. Even after all these months, she rarely thought to use that ability right off the bat.
A quick scan told her it was definitely not cops, or at least she was pretty sure they weren't. She sensed three human males, all radiating strong excitement and nervousness overlaid with the hazy pall that came with drunkenness. Great. Drunks on the loose. She was no fool, she knew how nasty drunks could get. Just because she lived in a nice house in a quiet town now didn't mean that she should pretend it was Disneyland. Again she regretted convincing Paul and Daniel they could leave. Though she wasn't really afraid, having them around would be handy.
She waited, wondering if the men would leave, hoping they would. After a little while she felt their excitement increasing, and felt them coming nearer. That did it. She reached for the phone to call Llyn for advice. Before she'd met him she would automatically have called the cops and let them take care of things, but Llyn wasn't very fond of the police. The connection went through and she keyed her number into the pager system. Just as she finished, the line went dead. She stared at the phone, then slowly put it down. Not good. Very not good.
Carlie reached out and could feel that the two men had gone around to the back of the house. That didn't surprise her, since that was where the phone-lines connected. Suddenly the lights went off as well. She still didn't feel too frightened. The guys were pretty drunk, and probably wouldn't be able to get into the house since the doors were locked, and the windows didn't lend themselves to smashing, as she'd discovered firsthand.
She felt the blood drain from her face as she realized that not only was the den window open, but several others were as well. While bulletproof glass might have kept them out, ordinary screens would present no barrier at all, and she didn't have time to run around and close them all, not with them this close. All she could think about for a moment was that Llyn would chew her out royally, not only for letting Paul and Daniel leave, but for leaving the house open.
She got to her feet, knowing she couldn't wait for Llyn to figure out the land line was dead and try her on the cell, and she didn't like the odds at all. She might be stronger and smarter, but she also had the babies to worry about. She was taking no chances where they were concerned. Picking up the cellular phone just in case Llyn called, Carlie walked grimly toward Llyn's office where he kept the weaponry locked away. Though she hoped it wouldn't come to it, if she had to shoot one or more of them, she would. It would be a clear cut case of self-defense.
Going to the weapons safe, Carlie turned the dial on the lock, glad that Llyn had used such an antiquated lock system. An electronic lock wouldn't have worked with the power off. Of course, he had anticipated that. She hesitated for a moment over which weapon to choose. Llyn had given her instruction on several different models, and thanks to her superior sight and reflexes, she'd gotten very good. However, she was well aware that there was a huge difference between a paper target and a living being. The .22 might not stop them. The .45 probably would, but she had to be sure. Quietly she picked up the 9mm. automatic, grabbed a clip off the top shelf, loaded it, then released the safety.
That done, she realized there was one other thing she had to do. It was the only way she could think of to ensure her children's safety, if anything happened to her. She turned on her cellular phone and dialed the sheriff's's department. The dispatcher answered, and Carlie quickly gave her address and outlined the problem. The woman told her to leave the connection open, assuring her that help was on the way. Carlie complied, putting the phone in her pocket so both of her hands were free.
Tilting her head toward the door, she 'listened' for a moment. She could faintly hear the men's voices as they whispered outside the den. Damn. They'd found the open window. She picked up a second clip for the gun in the other, then closed and locked the safe. There was no point in arming the intruders too, if they managed to get this far. A loud noise from the den as they ripped the screen sent her out the door and sprinting for the back stairs, but she stopped halfway up.
Though her instinct was to stay close to her children, It would put them at higher risk. She was sure she could handle the intruders, but better safe than sorry. Adrenalin surged through her as she frantically launched a thought at Luke, hoping he could understand her. She'd been working to get him to stop 'hiding' and now she was trying like hell to get him to not only reverse that, but to include his sisters in the game too.
//DANGER-QUIET-HIDE, LUKE! YOU, ARIAN, SORCHA, HIDE!//
She sensed a response, it seemed positive, but it was impossible to tell. She prayed he'd understood. Asking a toddler, even one as bright as Luke, to do something like that was nearly hopeless. She would just have to keep the intruders away from the second floor. Quietly she eased back down the stairs and over toward the door to the pool. It was dark there, and the stairs afforded some cover.
The intruders weren't even trying to be quiet now, talking loudly as they pawed through things in the den, discussing the value of the furnishings, the television, the stereo, and the art. The police had supposedly caught the theives behind the rash of burglaries that had plagued Timber Lakes lately, but either they had the wrong people, or this bunch was taking them for role models. Random splashes of light indicated that one of them had a flashlight, and a loud crash told her they'd broken something, probably the raku vase she'd bought at a local art-fair. They laughed uproariously at that, which made her angry. It hadn't been worth much, but she'd liked it. She took a deep breath, trying to calm herself. Llyn had always told her that emotions clouded judgement, and made one make irresponsible decisions.
From their comments, apparently the intruders figured that the house would yeild rich pickings. It was clear that their visit tonight wasn't random. They'd come here deliberately, maybe even been watching the house. She remembered the car which had driven by earlier, how it had slowed, then gone on. Had that been them, checking to see if anyone was home? Her bodyguards' distinctive black jeep had sat outside the house for days, but with that gone, it probably looked as if no one was home. They might have assumed the lights were on a timer and didn't realize the house was occupied.
She kept her silence. If all they did was go through the ground floor rooms, she would let them. Posessions were replaceable, and not worth defending, but if they started to go upstairs, that would pose a threat to her children, and that she would not allow. She knew she was capable of causing harm. She'd done it before, though it had been a long time ago, she'd been only seventeen. One of the rich white boys from her school had asked her out, and she'd been delirious with delight, thinking she'd finally broken the popularity barrier. He'd taken her to a movie, and afterward he'd tried to get her to put out, saying she 'owed' him for the movie.
When she refused, he'd tried to force her. Though she hadn't understood it at the time, her Dominant's strength had saved her from being raped. Carlie had learned for the first time the full extent of her strength and the rage that could fuel it. To explain his injuries later, the boy had told everyone he'd been mugged by three guys. She'd let him get away with the lie, knowing no one would have believed her in any case. But she knew the truth, and it had been a private pleasure to see his scarred face and know she'd done that. She'd do the same or worse to these, if they posed a threat to her babies.
Lewis felt his pager go off and instinctively tensed before remembering that it wasn't going to be an incoming assignment. He unclipped the pager from his belt, checked the number, and smiled in recognition. It was Carlie. She probably wanted to know when he was going to be home. It was nice to know that she was feeling as impatient as he was. He never would have thought that a few days separation would be so difficult. He steered the car to a halt on the shoulder of the highway and got out his cell-phone. From the back seat he heard a soft murmur from Sloan as Tom leaned toward Lewis, disturbing her sleep.
"Why are we stopping?" Tom asked quietly.
Lewis shook his head. "Carlie paged me. She probably just wants to know our arrival time."
Tom nodded and sat back, resettling Sloan against his shoulder. Lewis dialed and waited as the connection went through and the phone began to ring. And ring. And ring. Odd. Carlie should be picking up the phone, after all, she'd paged him. He hung up and tried again, with the same results. Maybe there was something wrong with the phone at the house. Curious, he dialed his own fax number, with the same results. Just a continual ringing. He hung up again, frowning. His fax machine should have picked up and tried to receive. Something was definitely wrong with the phones. Maybe she'd forgotten and put in the land-line number instead of the cell-phone number when she called. After all, it was late, she was probably tired.
He tried her cellular, and got the 'not answering at this time' message. His frown deepened to a scowl. Why would Carlie have asked him to contact her, and then not be available? He couldn't think of any reason that didn't involve some sort of trouble. His pulse rate picked up despite his resolve to remain calm. Perhaps one of the children was hurt, and they were on the way to the hospital? No, that wouldn't affect the phones. Maybe there was a fire? If so, then Paul and Daniel would know. He hit the autodial he'd programmed for Daniel's cellular and waited impatiently while it rang. It took four rings before it was answered, and he could hear the loud music and talking in the background, like a party, or a bar. It certainly didn't sound like anything that he should be hearing at his house.
"Daniel, what's going on at the house?" Lewis demanded succintly, not bothering with a greeting.
There was a long pause. Finally Daniel replied, uncertainly. "Sir? I'm not sure I heard you correctly, could you repeat that?"
"You heard me. Carlie paged me and now the phones are out and she's not answering the cell. What's going on?"
There was another long pause.
"We're, ah, not at the house, sir. Carlie told us you called, said we could go. I'm sorry sir, we didn't realize she . . ." As if knowing that Lewis didn't want to hear excuses, Daniel left his sentence unfinished.
The fingers of Lewis' unoccupied hand curved over the the steering wheel, clenching tightly, wishing it were Daniel or Paul's neck, not hard plastic. How could they have been so stupid? Why had they let Carlie tell them to go? They were better trained than that, they should never have taken instructions from anyone but him. Now Carlie and his children were alone and unprotected, possibly in danger! He battled a flood of nearly overwhelming emotions. Fear, anger, frustration, helplessness. The last was the worst. Though he was fairly close to home, there was no way he could get there immediately, which was what he wanted.
A hand came to rest on his shoulder and he jumped, shocked, having forgotten he wasn't alone in the car. He turned to see Tom staring at him in concern. Forcing himself to let go of the wheel, Lewis took a deep breath and calmed himself enough to reply to Daniel.
"Where are you now and how fast can you get to the house?"
"I'm in Bellvue, sir, about two hours away."
Lewis clenched his teeth around the need to scream his rage aloud, and hit the power key, ending the call.
"I overheard what you said. Carlie's in trouble?" Tom asked, low-voiced, concerned.
"I don't know," Lewis snapped back, angry, though not at Tom. He knew Tom would know that. "All I know is that the men I left to guard her aren't there, and I can't reach her, and I'm at least half an hour away."
Tom considered that for a moment, then he nodded toward the phone. "Call the police."
Lewis stared, shocked silent for a moment, then he recovered enough to speak. "What?"
"Call your local law enforcement, ask them to go check out your house."
"They're human, what could they do?" What had gotten into Tom? Why was he making such ridiculous suggestions?
Tom looked at him with a faintly ironic expression, and Lewis got the strangest feeling that his former student was amused.
"If nothing else, they can get in the way. Humans have their uses. Call the police. If something really is wrong, that's the fastest way to make sure Carlie gets help and if nothing's wrong, there's no harm done."
"I can't afford to arouse police interest, Tom."
Tom sighed. "Lewis, no one in Timber Lake knows you from Adam and no one who could be a threat to you is likely to be looking for you outside of a seance. To them you're just someone who's worried about his wife, someone they're supposed to serve and protect. Your mate needs help, get it for her. Don't let your prejudices or your paranoia put her at risk."
Lewis stared at him, seething. Humans? To have to rely on humans to protect Carlie was unthinkable, insane, and-- the only logical answer. It rankled. It infurated. It maddened. He turned the phone on and dialed information. Since they lived outside of the city limits, he'd have to call the sheriff's department. He'd made donations to them, just to make sure he stayed on their good side, they should be willing to go check out the house and make sure Carlie and the babies were all right.
Carlie heard the hoodlums move out of the den and toward the front of the house. They poked around in Llyn's office and found the safe, but thankfully were frustrated by its lock. While they were occupied, Carlie moved into the den, figuring they wouldn't look for her where they'd already been. They exclaimed excitedly over Llyn's computer, apparently computer-literate enough to know state-of-the-art when they saw it, but that didn't distract them long. They started looking for more stuff, methodically checking the hall closet, kitchen and pantry. From their conversation she gathered that some people hid valuables in such inoccuous locations. While they were in the kitchen, she moved to Llyn's office, so she could be closer and hear them better.
Thankfully, the babies hadn't made a sound upstairs. Even if Luke hadn't understood her command, all three of them had instinctively quieted in the face of a threat, so they wouldn't draw attention to themselves. She silently blessed those inhuman instincts, knowing they would help keep all three safe. The intruders left the kitchen, frustrated at not finding anything interesting. Carlie heard them move toward the staircase, talking about searching the bedrooms for jewelry or other expensive items, and knew she had to act.
Leaving the shelter of Llyn's office, Carlie moved toward the foyer, suddenly thankful for what she'd always thought of as Llyn's excessively paranoid nature. The battery-powered infrared light which had come on when the power was cut didn't help her visitors see any better, but it certainly helped her, rendering the foyer almost daylight-bright to her eyes. As the first goon set foot on the stairs, she shifted into a firing stance and lifted the gun, sighting carefully.
"Take one more step and I'll shoot," she announced in a calm and authoritative voice.
Instantly their attention, and the bright beam of a flashlight was focused on her. Her stance didn't waver at all. All three appeared to be in their late twenties, all three big men, muscular and tall. Two had dark hair, one was blond.
"Shit, she's got a gun!" The smaller of the dark-haired men yelped.
"So what?" Blondie sneered. "I bet it isn't even loaded. Besides, she can't see if I do this. . . " He shifted the flashlight upward so it shone directly in her eyes.
Her eyes adjusted instantly to the new light source and she moved the gun a hair to the left. "It's loaded. Want a demonstration?" Carlie asked reasonably.
"Fuck that!" The blond said. "Get her!" His voice was surprisingly commanding.
The taller dark-haired one moved toward her menacingly. She fired two rounds, feeling the gun buck in her hand, hearing the sound of it echo painfully in her unprotected ears. Her would-be attacker fell, blood welling from his still form to pool darkly on the floor.
The blond screamed something incoherent, and lifted his arm. The light pinwheeled wildly, then the heavy steel-cased flashlight hit her on the point of her the shoulder, turning her fingers nerveless. As the gun fell, suddenly the men were on her, knocking her to the floor. She fell hard and felt one of them come down on top of her torso, his body slamming into hers with bruising force. The other one lunged across her legs.
Carlie lashed out and felt a satisfying impact as her fist connected with someone's face. One man yelped, blood streaming from his nose. She tried to twist away, and he yanked her back by the shoulder of her dress, so hard that it ripped in his hand. She felt the cold metal of her weapon against her leg and kicked it away before one of them noticed it. She had no intention of getting shot with her own gun. She managed to hit the blond man again, then he lashed out at her, hitting her in the stomach with both fists, driving the air from her lungs in a painful rush.
Before she could breathe again the blond planted his butt on her midriff and pushed down with his full weight. Carlie struggled, trying to breathe, but over two-hundred pounds of pressure was too much to move with just her diaphragm. She couldn't get any air, and her vision filled with a black-bordered red haze. The blackness tunneled inward, reducing her world to a narrow view of angry, hate-filled face, then darkness began to overwhelm even that. Her arms fell limply to the ground, devoid of strength.
The blond man shifted his weight, grabbing her arms. With his change of position she could breathe again. She panted, dragging air into her lungs. The smaller man was sitting on her ankles keeping her legs still. Despite that, she bucked, almost throwing both of them off. The blond pinned her shoulders down with his hands, leaning over to put his face in hers.
"Stop it, bitch, or I'll have my friend go find your kids," he snarled.
Carlie subsided instantly. He'd found the one threat that was guaranteed to work. He grunted his satisfaction at her response, and turned his head toward his friend.
"Find the damned gun, it has to be here somewhere!" Blondie said to the other toughs.
"It would help if I could see!" A voice complained from the darkness. "Who's idea was it to cut all the lights, anyway?"
"Just shut up about that. How's Goose?"
"I don't know, he's not moving. I think he's dead, man!"
'Goose' must be the one she'd shot. There was no sound from him, and she could sense only two living human presences. She felt a fierce satisfaction in that, and to her own surprise, no regret.
"Fuck. Haven't you found that damned gun yet?"
"No, I don't know where it went!" The second man sounded scared. "Let's just get out of here, Eric! This was supposed to be easy! Now Goose's dead, and she broke my nose. This is fucked. Burglary's one thing, but this . . . No way man."
"All right, all right. Go back and get the computer, and the art. I'll watch her."
As the other man moved away, Carlie took a quick inventory of herself, and knew she was basically intact, if a little bruised. The hard shape of the ammunition clip was still in her pocket, painfully digging into her hip where her dress was caught beneath her. She couldn't feel the cell-phone anywhere, it must have fallen out of her pocket. She hoped it was still on, hoped there was help on the way. She tensed, ready to fight again. She was sure she could take Eric, he was big, but she had the advantage of her Dominant's strength. Eric must have felt her shifting because shook his finger at her.
"Ah-ah-ah. Cooperate and we leave the kids alone. Make it hard and we'll go find them."
Carlie sagged back to the floor and tried to sense the babies, wondering if Luke had done as she'd asked. They were scared, feeling her emotions, and those of the intruders as well. With a shock she realized that if the one thug was dead, they had felt him die. She felt tears well up and slide down her temples into her hair. Babies shouldn't have to know about death.
The blond, Eric, laughed, misinterpreting her tears. "That's better. 'Bout time you figured out who's in charge here. Now, what else have you got here that's worth something?"
Carlie tried to think of something that would satisfy them, but there wasn't much. Neither she nor Lewis were much into 'things,' and what they did have was not especially portable or saleable. Eric was apparently irritated by the slowness of her response because he slapped her, hard. She tasted blood.
"Did you forget your kids are at stake here, moron?" Eric growled. "Tell me what you've got. In a place like this, there's gotta be something. Where's your jewelry?"
"I don't have much, not that's worth anything. Just this," she pulled off the diamond and gold wedding set that Llyn had given her and handed it to Eric. It meant nothing to her, it was just a human convention, she had no sentimental qualms about giving it up.
"Oh come on," Eric scoffed. "You guys have enough dough to pay for a place like this and you don't have any jewelry? Tell me another one. Chicks always like jewelry. Where it it, in your bedroom?"
"I don't have any, really," she said shakily. She had to make sure he stayed away from the second floor. What would he believe? A thought came to her and she went with it. "We spent most of our money on the house. We can't afford anything else, not with the babies."
He stared at her, grabbing her chin in ungentle fingers, staring into her eyes as if searching for the truth. She stared back, keeping still. As long as the second man was in the house she had to wait, that was the only way to protect the little ones. His expression began to change subtly, and she could feel his interest changing, feel the stirrings of a less larcenous sort that were building in him. He smiled, an ugly, obvious smile.
"Okay, say I believe you. You're broke. So, what else have you got to offer that'll make me happy?"
Oh god. She'd felt it coming, known what he would want next. For a moment Carlie actually considered offering herself, she could bear it for the sake of her babies, though she wanted to fight, to rage, to rend her attacker into bloody shreds. Even as she thought it, her resolve strengthened. No. She wouldn't do this. She would find a way out . She concentrated on his emotions, and felt the one that underlay the rest. Fear. Fear was the key, fear was his weakness.
"You shouldn't hang around here, you know. I called the police just before you broke in," she said calmly.
Eric sneered. "Oh yeah? How'd you manage that when we cut the phone lines?"
She smiled tightly. "I used the cellular."
He tensed instantly, fear becoming the strongest of his emotions by far. He lashed out, slapping her hard across the mouth again, and fresh blood welled across her tongue, tasting of iron and copper. She swallowed it, though she wanted to spit it in his face.
"You fuckin' bitch! You called the cops?"
From behind her, she could sense the other man's fear too, dominating him.
"The cops? Eric, we gotta get out of here!"
"Shut up, man! We got time, it'll take them awhile to get out here."
"It's been a while, Eric! Come on!"
She could tell that he was torn between continuing his game, and leaving. He wanted very much to hurt her, badly. To use her. Even as that image bloomed in her mind, Carlie suddenly sensed a familiar presence. Llyn! He was close, very close. She'd been so swamped by her own emotions and those of her attackers that she hadn't sensed him as he approached, but he was practically in the house. She couldn't believe she hadn't felt him earlier, his fury was like a living thing, seething and coiling like a dark cloud. Underlying that anger in equal measure were the fear, and pain, and love he felt for her. She took his emotions inside her and made them her strength.
Knowing that with Llyn home she didn't need to fear that the babies would be harmed, Carlie bucked beneath her attacker, wrenching herself away from him. He hadn't anticipated her sudden resistance. He went sprawling across her body as the front door burst open with a concussive slam that shook the foyer. In seconds Carlie was free of Eric's weight as Llyn picked him up and threw him across the room. Eric hit the wall and slid down it like a bag of wet sand, leaving a dent in the wallboard where he'd hit it.
The dark-haired man who had just walked out with his arms full of computer dropped the machine with a loud crash and and headed for the door at a dead run, only to encounter Tom there, his cold fury nearly as intense, if not as hot, as Llyn's. The man then turned and ran the other way, leaving behind his erstwhile leader. Tom took off down the hall after him. As Lewis advanced on Eric's limp figure, Sloan stepped into the house holding a gun in a way that suggested she didn't really know how to use it. She took one look at Carlie and gasped, running over to kneel beside her.
"Oh, god, Carlie-- are you okay? Did they . . . ?"
Carlie read the other woman' s instintive fear and shook her head as she got to her knees. "No. They didn't."
The distinctive sound of flesh impacting flesh caught her attention in the confusion, pulling her gaze back to Llyn, who had hauled Eric to his feet and was holding him there against the wall. Radiating murderous rage, he struck the semi-conscious man twice in the belly. Eric doubled over and threw up. At the very edge of her range, Carlie suddenly felt two new Humans approaching, and knew that the sheriff's officers she'd summoned were nearing the property. Her protective instincts flared. Their presence could be dangerous to Llyn right now, with him in this state. Though at this moment it didn't bother her a bit, she was aware that the law probably wouldn't condone him beating a practically unconscious man to death, self-defense or not. She got to her feet and went to him, a little unsteadily.
He turned instantly, his gaze sweeping down her, taking in her bruised mouth and torn dress. Rage flared in him anew, and he drew back a fist to hit Eric again. Carlie put her hand on his arm, summoning calm from someplace deep inside herself.
"No, Llyn. I'm fine. Please, the police are here now. I called them when I wasn't sure you could be here in time. Let them handle this."
His eyes held hers, blazing, electric-arc blue. For a moment she didn't think her words had registered, but then she sensed a minute lessening of his rage, a more coherent pattern to his thoughts. She moved closer, pressing herself against his back, putting her head against his shoulder.
"He doesn't matter, but you do. You're too important to me to risk your freedom over that." She nodded toward Eric.
Carlie felt Lewis' control reasserting itself as he responded to her nearness as well as her words. Finally he exhaled slowly, and deliberately released Eric, who slumped to the ground, motionless but alive. Lewis turned and pulled her into his arms, holding her so tightly it almost hurt. Carlie reveled in the discomfort, wanting him to hold her so, as if he were trying to pull her inside himself. She needed it. With the need for control suddenly gone, her unnatural calm deserted her, and the impact of the experience hit her full force. She started to sob, hiding her face against his shoulder, holding onto him as if he were the only stable thing in the world.
Lewis held Carlie close, closer than was probably comfortable, but she didn't seem to mind. He felt her body shake with her sobs, and wanted to grab her attacker and methodically tear him limb from limb. The only thing that kept him from it was Carlie need for him. The area reeked of human fear-scent and vomit, and he wanted to get her away from that. He lifted her in his arms and carried her over to the stairs, sitting down with her still in his arms. She curled herself into a ball on his lap, still weeping, but less painfully now. He found himself rocking her a little, as he did when holding one of his children and trying to calm them.
It hit him then. The children. Lewis reached out instantly, and found them, frightened, but calming now that they could sense his presence, and feel that the threat had eased. He relaxed slightly, wanting to go to them, but knowing that he couldn't, not just yet. He sent a reassuring thought their way, and returned his focus to the debacle at hand.
How had this happened? Why had Carlie sent Paul and Daniel away, and even more importantly, why had they gone? They knew better. It was a blatant breach of discipline to allow anyone else to countermand his orders. It shouldn't have happened. None of this should have. He should have been here to prevent it. He knew how Carlie felt about killing, she should not have had to find out first hand what it was like. His life-giver shouldn't have had to become a life-taker. He looked up as Tom returned to the main room with the other thug in hand, dropping him to the floor next to the moaning, semi-conscious blond. Tom caught Sloan's eye and pointed at the two men.
"Sloan, watch them, I'll go get the lights back on." He looked at Lewis "I assume the fuse-box is in back?"
Lewis nodded as Sloan aimed the gun Lewis had given her in the general direction of the attackers. Lewis winced. Thankfully Carlie's assailants were no shape to realize how inept Sloan was. He would have to make sure Tom trained her in the proper use of firearms before she shot herself, or someone else, by accident. If Tom insisted on having a human mate, he could at least make sure she wasn't a menace.
Suddenly new presences bloomed in Lewis' mind. He stiffened, on alert, then relaxed as he realized it was the sherriff's officers that apparently both he, and Carlie, had called. If he'd realized that he would be able to arrive before them, he wouldn't have. It would have been easier to clean up this mess without that kind of interference. Still, Tom had been right. Better human protection than none at all. He plotted darkly what he'd do to Paul and Daniel for deserting their post.
A vehicle rolled up to the house with lights flashing and siren screaming. Its headlights and a side-mounted spotlight shone through the tall windows and open front door, bathing the foyer in light. Tom stopped, looking at Lewis as two uniformed figures got out of the Blazer, guns drawn. Lewis glanced at Sloan, and the weapon she held.
"Why don't you put that down by me?" he suggested, as much for her own safety as anything. She looked relieved and hurriedly placed it on the stair next to him.
"Good, now, go out and let them know we've got things in hand."
Sloan frowned. "Me?"
"You. You're female, and unarmed. They won't see you as a potential threat. Go."
Sloan sighed, but she went, moving slowly toward the door with her hands out so they could clearly see she held nothing dangerous. "Hello?" She called out tentatively.
Lewis rolled his eyes, but he felt the cops relax slightly as Sloan stepped out onto the porch and walked toward them.
"Are you the person who reported a possible break-in?" a woman asked.
Lewis recognized the voice. He'd made a point of ingratiating himself with the local law enforcement officials, just in case. Sheriff Bedford had been quite pleased that a newcomer to the area would donate so generously to their New Vehicle Fund. He had been intrigued to find that the local sheriff was a woman in her mid-forties. A tall, curvaceous, dark-haired woman with several tattoos. After watching her work her for a few months, he'd realized that she was incredibly competent, which apparently outweighed her gender and appearance in the minds of local voters.
"No," Sloan said. "That was my friend, Carlie, she lives here, I'm just visiting. I mean, she was here by herself, we just got here." Sloan sounded even less coherent than normal, but then, she had reason to be. It was a confusing situation, and she was upset, and coming down off an adrenalin rush.
The sheriff nodded, and put a calming hand on her arm. "Yes, ma'am, why don't you give a statement to Deputy Alves here and I'll come in and see what needs doing. Our dispatcher recorded and relayed most of what happened over the phone. The ambulance should be here any time now. We'll take over from here."
As the sheriff spoke outside with Sloan, Tom looked at Lewis.
"I'll go ahead and get the power back on now."
Lewis nodded. "The fuse box is outside, just to the right of the kitchen door. There's a flashlight you can use on a charger next to the refrigerator. Don't mess up their prints."
Tom shot him a disgusted look which made Lewis realize just how shaken he was. Of course Tom would know better than to do anything like that. He'd known better at the age of eleven. Tom headed toward the kitchen as the sheriff entered the house. The woman looked around the foyer, shaking her head.
"What a damned mess. I'm sorry about this, folks. We got here as quick as we could, but you do live a ways out."
Lewis nodded, trying to look understanding, trying not to grit his teeth. "I know that, Sheriff Bedford. It's just fortunate that I arrived home from my trip when I did."
The woman nodded. "Yes, it is." She sighed, and stepped closer. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Pryce, but I have to ask this. Were you raped?"
In his arms Carlie stiffened, and shivered, then lifted her head, and wiped her eyes "No. I wasn't." Lewis sensed the truth of her answer with a flood of relief. He'd been wondering that, thinking he would know, but not quite sure. It had been like a knife in his gut.
The sheriff looked at Carlie for a long moment, then nodded acceptance. "Do you need to see a doctor?" The woman asked gently. "There's an ambulance coming."
Fear flashed through Carlie, and Lewis stroked her hair to calm her, though he understood why she was afraid. A doctor might find out about her physical differences, and realize she wasn't human. She shook her head again.
"No, I'm fine. Just a little shook up, a few bruises." She touched the corner of her mouth, wiping away the trace of blood there. "Nothing serious."
"If you change your mind, let me know. If you feel up to it, we'd like to take some pictures of the bruises for evidence."
"Do we have to do that right now?" Lewis snapped irritably.
Bedford shrugged. "No, we can do it tomorrow. Actually that would be more effective, since the bruising will be even more obvious then."
Knowing Bedford was right made his temper flare anew. Carlie's arms tightened around him and she made a tiny, negative sound. He realized that she was trying to protect him from the consequences of his own rage, and nuzzled her hair softly, letting her know he wasn't about to go kill her assailant in front of the humans.
The sheriff moved to stand over the slouched figure of the chief thug. Lewis sensed recognition from her, which she confirmed a moment later, scowling. "Eric Hartmann. I figured he'd end up in jail one of these days, but never could catch him at anything before." She eyed him for a moment, and then looked over at Lewis with a gleam of humor in her eyes. "Think your wife would like to come to work for us? Looks like she's got a future in law enforcement."
Lewis was surprised by the irreverent comment, but Carlie gave a semi-hysterical snort of laughter. Bedford smiled a little, and Lewis realized that she'd done it deliberately, to help Carlie gain a little distance. Interesting technique. No wonder the locals liked her. The lights came on suddenly, startling Bedford.
"What the . . .?" she said, looking around.
"I asked my brother to go out back and reset the fuse box," Lewis explained. At her look of dismay, he continued. "Carefully, of course, so as not to disturb any fingerprints. He and his friend, Dr. Parker, arrived with me. We drove up from Northern California today."
The woman nodded. "Thanks. Gotta keep things straight." She paused a moment to pull out a notebook and scribble a few lines, then knelt to examine the body of the male Carlie had killed. Finishing there, she turned to the other two. The blond was pale and sweating, barely conscious. Lewis was fairly certain he'd broken several of the man's ribs, and probably ruptured his spleen. To his trained gaze it was clear he was bleeding internally, and Lewis hoped he didn't make it until the ambulance came. That would be one less of them to have to deal with later. She frowned, and looked at Lewis and Carlie.
"Mrs. Pryce did you do this?"
Carlie shot a quelling glance at Lewis when he opened his mouth to take the blame, and lifted her chin proudly. "I've had martial arts training. When he attacked me, I defended myself."
Lewis noted with a bit of amusement that Carlie had phrased her answer in such a way as to make the sheriff believe she was responsible for the man's injuries without actually lying. She was learning. Bedford nodded and jotted more notes, and turned to glance at the other man who sat, trying to make himself smaller and inconspicuous. After a moment she unhooked a set of cuffs from her belt and snapped them onto the .
"Hey, Phil, come get this guy outta here, would ya?" she yelled, then turned back toward Lewis, and Carlie. "I'm afraid I do need to get a statement from Mrs. Pryce tonight," she said apologetically. "It's important, or I wouldn't insist. Can we go in the kitchen? I think we'll be more comfortable there, without all . . . " she paused, looked at the corpse, the two immoblie thugs, and the pool of vomit, then made a face and finished, " . . . this."
Carlie nodded, and Lewis stood up to take her into the kitchen. She pushed against his chest and shook her head.
"Put me down, Llyn. Please?"
He studied her, felt that it was important to her, and nodded, sliding her down so her feet were on the ground. She stood for a moment, leaning against him, then straightened, looking up at him, her hands resting against his chest. "The babies need someone, Llyn. They're scared. Since I can't go to them yet, you should."
Lewis frowned. "Sloan can go sit with them, I should stay with you."
"No, they need me, or you, not a relative stranger. I'll be all right. I'm sure Sloan will hold my hand if I need it, but I know I won't be able to think straight if I'm worrying about them. Please? They've missed you so much."
She was right. Once she'd pointed it out, and taken his focus from herself, Lewis could feel that Arian, Sorcha and Luke were still upset, and getting more so as they waited, alone, yet sensing the turmoil of the emotional atmosphere. He nodded. "I'll go."
Carlie sighed, relieved, and stepped back. Her torn dress gaped at the shoulder, and she held it closed, looking distressed. Sloan, who had come inside with the deputy, quickly slipped off her jacket and handed it to Carlie, who put it on and buttoned it with shaking fingers. Lewis could feel that Carlie's control was a thin veneer over her emotions. He wanted to take her in his arms and comfort her again, but knew she wouldn't allow it now. Later she would need it, but now she had to rely on her own strength, and both of them were aware of that. She looked over at Sloan, and nodded toward the kitchen
"Sloan, would you come sit with me while I talk to Sheriff Bedford?
Sloan nodded, looking as if she were about to cry. "Of course, anything"
Lewis sensed that Sloan really did mean anything. That might change if she were asked to do something that threatened what she held dear, but it was interesting that she would be so generous. He began to understand, a little, what Tom saw in the woman. That kind of loyalty was rare. As Carlie walked to the kitchen with quiet determination, he felt a stir of illogical pride. Though he knew her strength was not his doing, the fact that she was his mate somehow made it seem so. A silent, agitated call from upstairs told him he'd waited a moment too long. Without Carlie, he'd need help handling all three of them. He looked around and saw Tom not doing anything.
"Tom, you're with me," Lewis ordered, then turned and took the stairs two at a time. Tom was right behind him.
Opening the door to the nursery, he went to the first crib, looking down in confusion as he realized the bed was empty. Thinking that perhaps Carlie had put all three babies down together since they did like to sleep that way sometimes, he checked the other two beds. Empty as well. Lewis experienced a momentary flash of what someone else might have termed panic, except that he never panicked. He had sensed them. They were here, and safe. He looked at Tom.
"Carlie must have hidden them when she sensed danger."
Tom nodded, frowning. "It feels like they're here."
Lewis echoed his frown. It did feel that way, but it obviously couldn't be. He tried to think of where Carlie might have put them. Probably not in the nursery, that would have been too obvious a place for the intruders to search. He'd started for the door to check the bedrooms when a sound stopped him, a tiny, muffled whimper. Turning, he looked around more carefully. That had been Arian, he knew it. He looked at Tom.
"Did you hear that?"
Tom nodded, and Lewis closed his eyes, concentrating, and could feel them all, their fear, and their need for comfort. The sensation was too immediate to be coming from anywhere else. They were clearly somewhere in the room.
"Arian? Luke? Sorcha? Tell me where you are." Though he knew they couldn't really understand his words, they would understand the concepts the words conjured in his mind. "I'm here. It's safe now. You're safe, your mother is safe. Tom is a friend." He backed each word with an emotional image.
The whimper became a full-fledged bawl. His gaze snapped to Arian's crib, and he stared, stunned, at the crying baby who sat in the crib he'd sworn was empty. Luke and Sorcha took up a descant, each from their respective beds. For a moment he could only stand there, trying to understand how he could possibly have missed seeing them, but their upset quickly drove him from that state. He picked up the closest baby, Sorcha and held her out to Tom.
"Take her," he ordered.
Tom complied, awkwardly, wincing a little from the noise level before finally managing to settle her comfortably into the curve of his arm. Sorcha quieted then, staring at Tom with a faintly puzzled frown, as if she were trying to remember where she'd seen him before. It had been several months since Tom had last seen them, but he wasn't truly a stranger.
Lewis picked up Arian and Luke, and sat down on the floor with them, soothing them until they quieted as well. Luke was trembling slightly, his breathing rapid, though slowing. His symptoms were clearly those of physical, as well as emotional stress. That bothered Lewis. Luke was physically the strongest of the three, what could cause him to react this way? It was as if he'd been exerting himself somehow.
"Lewis, I don't understand," Tom said in a low voice. "Why didn't we see them?"
The question brought Lewis up out of his worry. "You need to call me Llyn here," he corrected automatically. "That's how these people know me. Llewellyn Pryce. You're my brother, Tom."
Tom nodded, and Lewis caught a small flash of pleasure from him. He briefly wondered why, then Tom's question took precedence. He shook his head, looking around the room. "I don't know how we missed them. Frankly I don't understand it either. Had it just been me, I might have put it down to emotional stress, but you experienced it too so it was clearly more than that."
"Do you suppose it was something Carlie did?"
Lewis shook his head. "I don't think so, but I can't say for certain. Her empathic abilities are some of the strongest I've found. Our kind are still evolving, I suppose it's possible Carlie could have some mutation, like mine for forced rapport, that allows her to create an illusion. Perhaps the stress of tonight and her worry for the children allowed her to access that ability for the first time."
Tom thought about that, and finally shrugged. "I suppose. It was very strange, whatever it was. I'm not used to being fooled like that."
Lewis looked back at him with lifted eyebrows, and Tom smiled.
"Yeah, I know. You either. I could tell. You know, that's twice today I felt something from you that I never thought I would."
Even though he knew he was being led, Lewis couldn't resist, he was too curious. "Which was?"
Lewis glared at him. "I wasn't afraid."
Tom's smile broadened. "Of course not. Just like you weren't afraid when Carlie paged you and you realized the land-line was dead and she didn't answer the cellular. And you drove here at about sixty miles an hour over the speed limit because you just wanted to get home sooner."
"I wasn't afraid. I was angry," Lewis said decisively.
"Ah. My mistake," Tom said, a faint smile curving his mouth as he sat down across from Lewis and shifted Sorcha so he could look at her face better. "She's changed."
Lewis chuckled, remembering a similar comment he'd made to Carlie once. "They do that. Very rapidly, too."
Tom nodded thoughtfully and tried to resettle Sorcha, who squirmed in his arms restlessly. He looked back at Lewis. "What does she want?"
Lewis 'listened' to her for a moment, then looked at Tom and understood. "You're holding her wrong. Put her against your chest, Carlie says the sound of an adult's heart is very soothing to small children, because of their time in the womb. Let her put her head on your shoulder, she may drool a little but it washes out."
Tom chuckled. "Now that's a comment I would love to have on tape," he said, shifting Sorcha as Lewis instructed.
She settled down and Lewis felt her mind quieting as she started to head toward sleep. Arian was in the same state, but Luke was awake, though unusually clingy and quiet. Of the three of them, he seemed the most affected by the night's events. Lewis shifted him closer to his heart and Luke gave a tiny sigh and closed his eyes, relaxing finally. He would sleep soon, that was clear.
"Do they always recover so quickly?"
Lewis looked up to see Tom's eyes on Luke and Arian. He nodded. "Yes, usually. Children are amazingly resilient. Once their immediate need is assuaged, they recover almost instantly."
Tom nodded, an almost wistful expression on his face.
"What?" Lewis asked quietly.
Tom looked away and shook his head. "Nothing."
Lewis took a moment to analyze the progression of emotions he'd felt from the other man, and he figured it out. He smiled. "You can, you know."
Tom frowned. "I can what?"
"Be a father. Even should you choose to reproduce with Sloan, your children would be Dominants. You know that."
Tom tensed, and shook his head. "No, I couldn't do that to Sloan."
Lewis chuckled, and deliberately misinterpreted the younger man's comment. "Certainly you could. In fact, you already may have, since from her scent, I would say that she was already in the right point in her cycle last night."
Tom glared at him, then his eyes widened and his face paled. Lewis sensed a sudden flood of apprehension. The babies all fretted in response, and Tom hastily calmed himself.
"I take it you hadn't noticed," Lewis said drily.
Tom shook his head, and Lewis clicked his tongue against his teeth. "Careless of you. I'm surprised."
Tom looked stricken. "It must have been the drugs, I wasn't back to normal. I couldn't tell. She'll kill me."
"Doubtful, after the effort she went to in order to get you back. However, I suggest you discuss the possibility and your options at this point, if you believe she would be averse. And it's always possible there is nothing to . . . be concerned about. Human females are generally less fertile than our own. Once is rarely enough to assure impregnation."
Tom sighed and Lewis felt a little sorry for him. He'd never had to deal with this part of things, not really. He suddenly remembered Carlie staring at him in shock as she realized that what he'd done had been more than just casual sex for pleasure's sake, that it had, in fact, been the mating she had unconsciously demanded from him. He'd been a different person then. It hadn't mattered to him that she might be upset. In fact, it hadn't even occurred to him that it should matter. She'd asked and he'd given even though he'd known that she didn't really understand what she was asking. He would have to make that up to her.
Tom suddenly looked down at Sorcha and wrinkled his nose. "Ah, I think maybe Sorcha might need you now."
Lewis smiled. "Get used to it. Come on, I'll show you how."
He maneuvered himself to his feet, not an easy task holding two sleeping babies. He settled Luke and Arian together in one crib, knowing they needed that closeness at the moment, and then turned to take Sorcha from Tom, placing her on the changing table. She lay still and quiet, not fussing as she waited patiently, knowing what came next. Though she was sleepy, as her eyelids drooped, they immediately flew back open and a hint of annoyance colored her emotions. He smiled, knowing that annoyance was with herself for being sleepy, afraid of missing something important if she gave in to her body's need for rest.
Strangely, that was the one thing he could clearly remember from his life before he'd been given to Adam. He'd been just like that, always afraid of missing something. Of course, Sorcha was in many ways the most like him of his children. It would be interesting to see what she became, in part because it would show him what he might have been had he been left to develop on his own instead of being molded into what Adam and Marga had wanted him to be.
"Tom, if you would, open that container there," he said, nodding toward the baby-wipes, keeping his voice low and soothing as he gently tugged his daughter's star-patterned nightgown up to expose her diaper.
Tom complied, opening the canister, then stepping back as far as could get from the table without making it clear he wanted to be elsewhere. Lewis chuckled and reached under the table to get out a fresh diaper, placing it within easy reach on the table. He looked up at Tom, and nodded toward the table.
"Observe. You open these tabs . . ."
He continued his demonstration, proceeding through disposal of the old diaper, clean-up, and application of the new diaper. Tom watched with an expression that was a mixture of awe and disgust. Lewis didn't bother to conceal his amusement with his protégé's dismay as he finished the task. Finally he picked Sorcha up and just held her. Sorcha fought sleep still, pulling back to look at him, somehow managing to convey both her displeasure at his absence, and her pleasure at his return.
Satisfied that he was actually here, she snuggled against his shoulder with a little sigh. He felt an ache that made his eyes sting, but it was a good kind of pain. Ignoring Tom's quizzical expression, Lewis held Sorcha for a few moments more, longer than really necessary to assure himself she was really asleep before placing her gently beside her sleeping siblings. She fidgeted a little, but quieted at the touch of his hand on her back and his emotions in her mind. Lewis gestured for Tom to follow him and they quietly left the room.
Carlie had begun to think they would never leave, but Sheriff Bedford had finally gathered her deputy, her coroner, and her lab guy, and gone. Thankfully they had carted off her assailants fairly early in the process, getting them out of the house where she didn't have to feel their presence. She wasn't sure how much longer she could have held out. Only the steady, reassuring feel of Lewis in her mind had kept her from totally breaking down.
As she watched the last official vehicle pull away from the house, she turned to him and silently put her arms around him, trying to absorb his strength into herself. He held her, his face against her hair, letting her. Somewhere distantly she heard Tom's voice.
"So, where's your backup safehouse? We should probably get going."
She turned, puzzled. "What?"
Lewis sighed. "Tom's right. We should leave."
Carlie pulled away from Lewis slightly, looking up into his face. "Leave? Why?"
"With the police involved, there will have to be a trial unless they plead guilty, and there's no guarantee of that."
He didn't have to explain further. She bit her lip. She had spent the first few months here thinking they would have to pack and run again, so she hadn't put down roots. Now she had just finally started to settle in, to feel comfortable, to get to know a few people. She didn't want to leave. But she knew that Lewis wouldn't want the scrutiny that would be involved in a legal action. A trial meant an investigation which could eventually lead to exposure of their false identities. It also meant publicity, perhaps newspaper photos from which someone could recognize him. She didn't want to leave, but she understood the necessity.
"I have several alternate locations but none are particularly close," Lewis said. "We'll have to spend quite some time on the road."
From his tone of voice, Lewis liked that idea about at much as she did. Carlie sighed. "I understand. I'll get some things together."
Sloan looked from her to Lewis, and back, frowning. "If you disappear tonight, they'll find that suspicious. I know I would. The sheriff would probably start investigating you immediately. Why don't you just stay here tonight, and leave tomorrow, or even the next day? I think it would draw less attention than if you cut and run immediately. If you take a little time, it will seem more normal."
Sloan paused, and when no one contradicted her immediately, she went on. "Sheriff Bedford told me it's common for women who've been attacked to feel uncomfortable in the place where it happened. Carlie can tell her she needs some time away from here. Bedford will buy that, then you can just decide not to return. It'll seem completely natural. That way you'll have plenty of time to get established somewhere else before anyone here realizes you aren't coming back. Even if they can't find you, it'll be a while before they really start to question what happened."
Lewis looked at Tom, and Carlie sensed surprise from her own mate, and a sort of smug amusement from Sloan's. After a moment, Lewis spoke.
"Excellent points, Sloan. You're right."
It was Sloan's turn to be surprised. "I am?" she said, then looked disgusted. "Of course I am. See? A few days with you and I'm doubting myself. Carlie must be made of steel to put up with you."
Lewis looked at Carlie and touched her cheek softly. "Not steel. Willow. Strong, but supple."
The analogy was tender, but Carlie thought about how far she'd had to bend that night in order to try to protect her babies, and felt tears starting again. Lewis' smile evaporated as he sensed her imminent collapse. He shot a glance at Tom, then glanced at the stairs, toward the babies' room. Tom nodded and Lewis leaned down and picked Carlie up, turning to carry her upstairs with an ease that made her feel safe finally, protected. For some reason that made her cry harder. Lewis carried her into their bedroom, pushed the door closed with his foot, and lowered her to the bed, holding her gently as she cried herself into a hiccoughing, sniffling mess.
When she finally subsided he carefully drew away a little. Carlie thought he was going to leave her and she grabbed him, holding him fiercely. He stroked her hair, mentally and physically reassuring her that he wasn't leaving until she relaxed a little and let go. He put his lips against her ear.
"Can I go into the bathroom and get a cool cloth for your face?"
She thought about it, and finally nodded. It would feel good, and he wouldn't be far away. He eased away from her and sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, obviously waiting to see if she would panic again. When she didn't, he stood up and went into the bathroom. She heard him running water at the sink and felt a sudden surge of revulsion. She'd killed someone. The thought horrified her. Like Lady MacBeth, she knew her bloody hands would never come clean, even though she knew he'd earned his death.
Nausea swamped her, and she rolled off the bed and ran to the bathroom, barely making it in time. Lewis knelt and stroked her hair back, holding it out of the way, and reassuring her that she'd done the right thing. Once she had finished he used the wet washrag to clean her face, and gave her a glass of water. She rinsed her mouth and spat, then drank, letting the cold, clean water chase the bile from her mouth. She swallowed, feeling the chill of the water all the way down her throat to her stomach. She shivered, and that shiver was followed by another, and another, until she was shuddering nearly continuously, feeling cold to her core. She realized disjointedly that she must be in shock.
Apparently Lewis did as well. He gently lifted her, seating her on the counter, then he turned and started the shower, adjusting the temperature and flow before turning back to her. She sat, unmoving as he unbuttoned her borrowed jacket, slid it off her, and hung it on a hook behind the door. That accomplished, he unbuttoned her dress, and removed that as well, dropping it in the trash. He studied her, his jaw tightening as he looked at the bruises on her arms, stomach and face. She sensed raw anger and disgust surging in him, and whimpered, trying to free her hands. He lifted her hands to his lips and kissed them, then drew her to her feet and held her against him.
"Don't. It wasn't your fault."
She pulled away, standing with her back to him, hugging herself. "It was! I told Paul and Daniel to go. I left the windows open! I wanted things to be normal for you when you got home, not like an armed camp. It was my fault, Lewis, I should have known better!"
"How could you have known?" he asked, denial in his voice. "You're my refuge, it's not in you to know how hard the world is."
"I know now," she said simply, and the sudden guilt her words engendered in him was like a knife in both of them. She cried out, wrapping her arms around him. "No, Lewis, don't. Don't feel guilty. You did what you could to keep me safe, if I had listened, I would have been safe."
"I shouldn't have left you," he breathed, "I should never have left."
She shook her head. "You had to. I knew that. You came back, that's what's important." She knew she was crying again, knew it would upset him, but she couldn't help it. Her life had just changed irrevocably. She would never again have the blissful ignorance of not knowing what it was like to kill another sentient being.
Lewis laughed, a little desperately. "I'm supposed to be comforting you, not you, me."
She turned back to him, and wrapped her arms around him, feeling the strength of his body against hers, the strength she'd come to rely on as her own. "We comfort each other. That's what love is."
Lewis' arms tightened around her and she felt his throat move as if he spoke, but no words came. She felt his response though. He might not be able to say it, but he could feel it. Feeling it was more important. He held her for long moments, then held her away a little so he could see her face. "Are you feeling better? Shall I turn off the shower?"
Carlie shook her head, still feeling cold to her core with the intimate knowledge of death.
"No." She slipped off the counter and moved toward the shower, only then realizing she was shaking so badly she could barely walk. "I need help," she admitted, low-voiced, feeling embarrassed by her own weakness.
Without hesitation he stripped so he could join her. She automatically scanned him for new scars or injuries, and felt a rush of comfort at not finding any. At least one thing had gone right. She clung to that as he lifted her into the shower, then stepped in himself. When she reached for the soap he took it from her and with infinite gentleness began to bathe her, knowing she needed that gentleness after the violence she'd experienced. He started with her feet, worked upward until he reached her hips, then he paused for a moment.
Next thing she knew his hands were in her hair, working shampoo into the thick mass, then they moved forward, smoothing lather over her forehead, her cheekbones, down her throat, even behind her ears. She closed her eyes and mouth and felt him wash those as well, then he turned her toward the water and rinsed the shampoo from her face and hair. At least in the water he couldn't see she was crying again. A moment later he was working conditioner through her hair, using his fingers to comb out the tangles, then guiding her under the spray to rinse again.
That done he took up the soap again and started with her shoulders and back, massaging as much as washing. Her head fell back against his shoulder where he stood behind her, and she sighed as he worked the tension from her under the warm spill of the shower, his strong hands slick with soap. He slid them around her waist, and his touch grew lighter as he carefully washed her bruised stomach, then her breasts. Her body reacted to the contact, her nipples hardening, a streamer of warmth unfurling in her belly.
Though Lewis must have felt her response, he held himself away from her, and when there was only one part of her that he hadn't washed, he stopped. She waited, expecting him to continue, but then his emotions reached her. Surprised, she turned and saw that same uncertainty echoed in his eyes. She realized suddenly that he was concerned that his touch might be unwelcome after what had happened, that she was too traumatized to want him.
Carlie turned to face him fully, and slowly reached out and found his hand, drawing it to her, sliding it down between her thighs. The hesitation vanished from his eyes, replaced by a tenderness that stole her breath. He leaned forward and kissed her softly as his soapy fingers slid and searched. His tongue banished the taste of her own blood and fear from her mouth, replacing it with familiar desire. She moved forward, pressing against him, and his hand shifted from between them, leaving her aching. She protested, and he put his arms around her, one holding her lightly, the other slipping down her back, his hand curving over the round of her buttocks, soapy fingers sliding between her legs once more.
She ached with pleasure, her knees weak again, but this time not from remembered fear and . When she clung to him he understood her need, and he shifted her under the water again, letting it take the soap from her body, using his hand to sluice the cleansing warmth of it between her thighs. She closed her eyes, enjoying his touch until he finally drew back and shut off the water.
Taking a towel he dried her as gently as he'd bathed her, then lifted her out of the tub and carried her out to their bed. Laying her across it he settled beside her, and reached out to trace the line of her lips with his finger, a question in his eyes. Again he was hesitating. She understood, he wanted to be sure she was ready for him to touch her without the slim excuse of washing her.
The desire and love she felt for him at that moment was so powerful it almost hurt. That he would be so caring and compassionate with her when she knew he had never been taught that, was the most extraordinary gift she could imagine. She caught his hand in hers and kissed his fingers, then pulled his hand against her cheek, answering his unspoken question.
His thumb caught a tear and wiped it away, but it was quickly chased by another. He drew back, concerned. "It's too soon. We should wait."
She shook her head vehemently, and grabbed his shoulders to keep him from moving. Not trusting her voice, she lifted her mouth to his, kissing him almost desperately, ignoring the pain in her lip where Eric's hand had split it against her teeth. Lewis pulled back without responding, searching her eyes, worried now.
"Carlie, no. Not like this."
She couldn't help but wonder if he was angry with her for disobeying him, if that was why he hadn't responded to her, why he resisted, when he'd never refused her before. He had every right to be angry. Her carelessness had put their children at risk. Ashamed, she scrambled away from his warmth, ending up against the headboard in a half-crouch, feeling the tears come faster, hotter. He was with her immediately, fitting himself protectively against her back. He nuzzled her damp hair away from her ear and kissed the sensitive hollow beneath it.
"No shame, Carlie. None. You did nothing wrong."
She tried to protest. "I did! I left . . ."
He put his fingers against her lips, gently. "No. Nothing. We won't speak of that again." His tone clearly brooked no denial. She smiled through her tears. It was so very Lewis of him to think he could order such a thing. But strangely, the feeling of shame had left her, as if indeed, he had succeeded.
"I thought you were mad at me," she whispered, trying to explain, needing him to deny it.
Lewis' immediate, incredulous emotional response reassured her before he even spoke, but his words helped even more. "No, that's not it at all. I want you, I just can't take pleasure in hurting you. I'm here if you need me, however you need me, but I refuse to hurt you like they did."
Carlie teared up again. She couldn't seem to stop it. Lewis touched her face and she felt his dismay, his worry, all mixed up with his desire for her. He turned her to face him, pulling her into his lap, stroking her hair, her back, kissing her cheek, her eyelids, the corner of her mouth. She turned her head to catch his mouth with her own and for a delicious instant he responded, his tongue stroking hers, but when he deepened the kiss couldn't suppress a wince and he drew back instantly. She grabbed him and pulled him back to her.
"I need this, Lewis. I need you! I need life." Her voice sounded choked even to her own ears, and to reinforce her words she tried to project her need to him. He closed his eyes with a gasp and she felt the surge of his arousal in her mind, and in the way he hardened under her thighs. He shuddered faintly, and opened his eyes again, a hint of amusement in them along with the fire of his desire.
"Better tone that down a bit if you want me to last long enough to be useful."
She laughed, biting her lip. "Sorry."
He shook his head, smiling. "Never be sorry for wanting me," he kissed her gently, and eased her down against the pillows. "I'll give you what you want, but it has to be my way."
Carlie smiled again. "Doesn't it usually?" she asked, feeling delightfully normal for an instant.
Lewis chuckled ruefully. "Caught me." He leaned down and placed a kiss between her breasts, then looked up from there, humor and desire sparkling in his eyes. "But you never seem to mind."
She thought of the care he always took with her, the heights he'd shown her, and reached to stroked his hair, feeling the silky slide of it against her palm. "No, I never do," she whispered, her voice untrustworthy again. "Never."
His expression shadowed with concern again, and she laughed through her tears. "Lewis, if you stop again I swear I will hurt you!"
"But you're upset," he began.
She interrupted him. "Yes! I'm upset, and I need this so shut up and give it to me before I get even more upset!" Carlie threatened, frustrated by his unusual lack of understanding.
Admiration warmed his eyes, and he smiled slowly, lifted his hand to caress her face. "Strong, but supple," he said, repeating the statement that had started her tears.
She put her hand over his, not tearing up this time, feeling her own strength now. "I seem to remember you telling me that the female of our kind has the right to demand service, yes?"
He nodded. "I did."
"Then I'm demanding."
"I live to serve," he said, somehow managing to keep a straight face long enough to say it, before he bent his head to hide his expression from her.
He couldn't hide everything, Carlie could feel his smile in her mind and against her skin as he brushed his lips across her nipple. Joy echoed through her, and she understood that he needed this reaffirmation as much as she did.
It suddenly dawned on her that he'd provoked her deliberately. She growled, and he looked up, startled, desire banked and coaling in his eyes. At that she forgot her irritation, and reached down to touch his mouth with her fingers; his beautiful, hard mouth that could take her beyond pleasure. Lewis read her need and kissed her fingertips, then began to move down her body, blazing a trail with his mouth, gently touching each bruise, giving her pleasure instead of pain, consoling her body with his kisses. Carlie arched back on the bed, shifting her thighs apart at the urging of his hands, waiting with yearning anticipation.
Her hands knotted in the covers as he slid his hands beneath her, lifting her into the most intimate kiss possible. His lips parted her, his mouth slick and tender on her. She shook beneath the curl of his tongue, and the tug of his lips on her aching flesh. He moved one hand from beneath her, parting her with his fingers so his tongue could slide deeper inside her. She gasped and arched against that subtle invasion, her body so hot that his tongue felt cool against her heated, swollen skin.
He shifted his fingers upward, circling the taut nub of her clitoris, driving her higher, the pleasure tightening until she exploded into mindless delight. Moaning, she curled her fingers into his hair and held him while her body shuddered into stillness, and she could finally draw a full breath again. When she let him go he eased upward, moving behind her, pulling her into his arms, curling his legs beneath hers until she felt enclosed by him, safe, warm, loved.
"I love to feel you come," he whispered.
His words sent an echoing twinge through her sex. Lewis, sensing it in her, made an approving, self-satisfied sound. Carlie was intensely aware of the rigid curve of his erection pressed against the back of one thigh, but he made no move to enter her, just held her instead, his breathing steady, his control perfect. Sometimes she hated that control, but tonight she blessed it, knowing it had brought him home to her, safe and whole. Carlie put her hands on his forearms where they encircled her, feeling the subtle flex of muscles beneath her fingers as he shifted a little in response to her movement. Cautiously she reached out, opening her mind as she'd been afraid to earlier, fearing rejection then, but no longer.
Lewis was open to her, letting her inside him so she could feel his need for her, his care. His desire was an ember waiting for fuel, and Carlie realized she was that tinder. He was not going to make the next move. If she was satisfied by what he'd already given her, he would ask and offer no more. Her eyes filled with tears, but this time they didn't spill. Her own control was returning.
Closing her eyes, she stroked his arms, feeling the slight dampness left by the shower, feeling the smooth skin of his forearms broken by the scars that ridged them. She was glad his human captors had rescued him from himself, because they had saved him for her. She reached back to run a hand down his flank, then up to his waist. Trailing her fingers down the gentle hollow of his hip, over the convex of quadriceps, she painted him in her minds eye, seeing him with her fingers. Beautiful. But not enough.
Turning in his arms, she slid her thigh over his, opening herself to the arch of his cock. He remained motionless, the only outward sign of his arousal the slight increase in the speed of his breathing. Inwardly she could feel the rush of his need matching her own, his excitement deep inside her, deeper even than her sex. Twined into his need was his equally powerful desire to comfort her, to protect her. That moved her tremendously, renewing her strength. She reached down and took his penis in her hand, warm and silky, resiliently firm. She could feel the pulse of his need there, in the way he couldn't control a push into her enveloping fingers. She smiled. He was hers, she was his. They completed each other. That was what mattered.
Tilting her hips forward, Carlie guided him between her thighs, rocking herself over his cock until it was slick and wet with her desire. She rubbed over him, shivering at the sensation of control. This wasn't like him, this holding back, this passivity. It was intensely erotic to touch and manipulate him, instead of the other way around. The fact that he had sensed her need for that and encouraged it despite his own aggressive nature was a mark of how much he cared for her. That touched her deeply.
The feel of his silky hardness against her own yielding heat made her shiver with the intensity of her need. Having him so close, but not yet inside her made her ache. He was hers to take, completely hers. Just thinking about it sent a clenching spasm through her, a miniature climax. She shifted a little, and used her hand to position him at the entrance to her body.
"Now, love," Carlie whispered. "Come into me. I need you in me."
He pushed, slowly, filling her. Carlie gasped, shaking, as the connection forged between them, physical, but more. She rolled to her back so he lay above her, inside her, reveling in the heavy press of his flesh in hers. He pushed back on his arms. Against the insides of her thighs she felt his muscles gather as he drew back, then felt them stretch as he moved deeper. Her body opened easily to his demand, the familiar, welcome slide of his flesh in hers echoed by the deeper emotional penetration of his feelings in hers. He made a sound, a soft purr of pleasure as he settled inside her. The sound sent sparks of delight arcing through her, the motion made her wrap herself more tightly around him, lifting her hips into his, urging him on.
Lewis smiled and rubbed his nose along hers, catlike, and then took her mouth, his tongue recreating the rhythm he established with his cock. She arched upward eagerly, responding without reservation, her shame and fear completely dispelled by his touch and the intimate tangling of his emotions with hers. Suddenly he stopped moving and bent his head to her breasts, nuzzling, licking, suckling, each slow drawing of his mouth on her hardened nipples sending sharp arrows of pleasure through her, making her moan and lift in response so she moved, rather than him. Her breathing was fast and shallow, her body striving to find release again in his arms.
As her need became more urgent, Lewis responded to it by moving once more, driving into her harder, deeper. His invasion was sensual, irresistible, welcome. He put his hands beneath her hips to lift her into his thrusts, moving her on him so that with each stroke he slid across the sensitized bud of her clitoris, raising her need to almost painful heights. She splayed her hands across the broad strength of his back, tightened her thighs around his hips, loving the way his body held hers open to his penetration, loving the way he made her feel safe even in the most vulnerable state a woman could attain.
They were perfectly matched. Mated. A feeling of fierce possessiveness flooded her, echoed back to her from him. His thrusts deepened, and she felt him finally giving in to his own need, which in turn spiked her own passion. Desire spiraled tightly, demanding release, and then lashed free in a final burst of rapture so intensely shared that it left them stunned.
After a time Lewis found her hand and laced his fingers through hers, sighing as he turned onto his side, his hand splayed across her lower back to keep them fused, even as he relieved her of his weight. Actually, she had enjoyed the feel of him against her, but it was easier to breathe this way. Carlie put her head against his arm, trying to express her delight. He breathed her name, an affirmation.
After a moment he looked into her eyes, a strange unguarded expression on his face. She gazed back evenly, unashamed, fearless, letting him feel her wholeness, and was moved by the relief that flooded him as he took that in. His arms tightened, involuntarily, drawing her closer, and they lay like that for awhile, just absorbing each other's nearness. Carlie's eyes were starting to grow heavy when he spoke.
"Did you realize you've been calling me Lewis?" he asked.
She nodded, gazing at him solemnly. "Yes. I finally understand. I had started to, before tonight, but what happened tonight brought it home even harder. No matter what you've done in your life, I love you, without reservation. You are who you are, no matter what name you use. It was stupid of me to try to separate you into two different people."
He shook his head. "No, I am two different people."
"No more than the rest of us, love. Everything you've done in your life has contributed to making you who you are, and I accept that. I accept you, Lewis, all of you."
He didn't speak, but she felt the surging flood of emotions going through him, confusion, fear, pride, pleasure, and love. He had waited a long time for that acceptance from her, and she infinitely regretted that it had taken her so long to realize it.He had healed her, but she was still working on him. Of course, his wounds were older, and deeper.
Lewis made a soft, negative sound. "No, don't be sad. Not now."
She lifted her mouth to his and kissed him. "Not sad, not really. Just . . . emotional."
He eyed her, gauging her honesty, and finally relaxed. "That's all right then."
She nodded. "Yes, it is."
A yawn surprised her. The rigors of the day had caught up with her and now, safe in his arms, she was finally starting to relax. She tried to hold it back, but he must have seen the muscles in her jaw flex with the effort because he smiled, and pulled her closer.
"Go to sleep now. I'm here."
Tom shifted self-consciously, trying to move enough to ease the ache in his groin without being obvious. Sloan looked up from her book, eyebrows lifted.
"You certainly are restless tonight," she commented, curious.
"I just feel uncomfortable staying here," Tom lied, hoping his voice didn't sound as husky as he thought it did.
That was true, but not for the reason he hoped she would assume. Now that Lewis had pointed it out to him, Tom realized his mentor was correct. Sloan was at her peak fertility. If he hadn't already impregnated her, he didn't dare take any more chances. Easier said than done, of course, with Lewis and Carlie in the room directly above them. What he was sensing from them was making his resolution more difficult than he had ever realized it could be.
Desperately Tom wished his empathic senses were still muted, rather than sharpened. Lewis had warned him that was often a side effect of an empathic fugue. When the ability returned, it came back stronger than ever. It wasn't like they were screaming the house down, he doubted the babies were at all disturbed by their parents activities, being three doors down the hallway. But being directly below them in this super-sensitized state was proving to be pure hell for him.
It might have been easier had they both been strangers, since he had learned to screen out such things. But he had been intimate with Lewis, and had once wanted desperately to experience the kind of emotional openness he was feeling from his former mentor now. Getting it third-hand he felt vaguely guilty, like a voyeur, yet at the same time it was tremendously erotic. For the first time he truly understood what it must have been like for some of the men and women he and Lewis had seduced in their training sessions. Excruciating.
Hiding his state from Sloan was becoming more and more problematic. The longer things went on upstairs, the worse it got. Maybe he ought to just go take care of it himself. After all, he'd gotten pretty good at that over the last several months before he and Sloan had finally taken that last step.
"Tom, will you stop fidgeting?"
He snapped his attention back to Sloan, feeling a faint heat in his face, hoping she couldn't see the telltale flush. "Sorry, Sloan. I'm going for a walk, I'll be back in a few minutes."
He stood up, holding his magazine strategically if a little awkwardly, and moved toward the door. He had almost made it when she got up and walked over to stand behind him.
"Tom," she said, a hint of something sensual in her voice, more than a hint in her aura.
He stopped, gritting his teeth. "Yes, Sloan?" He didn't dare turn around. Her scent and the feel of her willingness was all around him, primal, female, arousing, compelling. He had never before felt such an urge to grab her, rip her clothes off, and possess her. He put a hand on the doorframe and clenched it around the wood.
"It's all right you know," she said softly. "The babies are asleep, we probably don't have to worry about them until morning."
He shook his head and willed his voice to work. "No, Sloan. We can't."
She put her hands on his shoulders, massaging them. Any other time he would have welcomed her touch.
"You're hard as rock, Tom, you really need to release some tension."
He almost laughed at her unintentional double-entendre. Or was it unintentional? He sensed a sly undercurrent of amusement in her that made him wonder. He shook his head again.
"Sloan, you don't understand. We can't."
"Tom, I babysat for years to earn extra money when I was in junior high, and high school. Believe me, we can. You know, there's such a thing as taking responsibility too seriously."
She couldn't just take 'no' for an answer. She was going to make him explain. Before he could figure out how to start, she spoke again.
" It's got to be difficult for you. You can feel them, can't you? And you've been with him, and so you know how it is, and you can't help but remember. I understand, really. And it's all right, I don't mind helping."
Under his hand the doorframe creaked, he felt the wood start to give and quickly relaxed his grip before he damaged the house noticeably. "Sloan, no. Just let me go for a walk. I'll be fine."
Sloan took her hands from his shoulders and he felt her hurt. "Fine. Go." She turned away and walked over to stare at a painting on the wall.
Tom felt a moment of guilty relief but he knew he couldn't leave things like this. He sighed and went to her, putting his arms around her, pulling her against him so she could feel his need. She gasped, and looked at him, obviously confused by his physical state, since he'd just refused her.
"Sloan, I'm sorry. We can't, but the reason we can't has nothing to do with babysitting. Well, maybe it does." He smiled ruefully. "As in, if we did something tonight, in a few months we might need one ourselves." He paused a moment, then bit the bullet and added the rest. "If we don't already."
It took her a moment to analyze his sentence, then she went very still, and quiet in his arms. Her eyes searched his face. "Um... would you mind explaining that a little more fully?" she asked quietly.
He could feel her trying not to overreact, trying to control herself and not give in to the sudden panic surging through her. Her emotions were so much more immediate and personal to him that they effectively screened him from Lewis and Carlie for the time being. His arousal eased, and he tugged Sloan toward the couch, knowing that humans traditionally preferred to get bad news sitting down. He wasn't sure how to say it gently, so instead he said it bluntly.
"It was probably a mistake to make love last night. We shouldn't have. You're in the fertile part of your cycle."
Sloan stared at him, openmouthed, a blush radiating across her cheeks. "How could you possibly know whether or not I'm fertile?" she demanded. "I don't even know that myself!"
"Normally I can tell from your scent. A female's scent is very different from one part of her cycle to another. Our olfactory system is sensitive enough that we can consciously detect the differences. My senses were not yet fully recovered from the drugs or I would have noticed it myself, before we did anything."
She considered that, then her eyes widened. "If you didn't notice, then who did?" Her blush deepened suddenly, and she answered her own question with an embarrassed moan. "Oh, God. Lewis!"
Tom nodded. "He mentioned it to me earlier."
Her eyes narrowed. "And just why did he mention it?"
Wondering if he was digging himself deeper, Tom attempted to answer her question tactfully. "You were with Carlie, and we went upstairs to take care of the children. As we were talking, he pointed out that if I-- I mean, if we . . . mat . . . er, pro . . . ah, had children together, they would be Dominants, not humans. I told him I wouldn't put you through that, and that's when he told me that I might already have done so, because of your current state."
"Oh," Sloan thought about what he'd told her, and he could feel the emotions flashing through her, quickly, confusingly. She looked down at her stomach, then back at him, a wry grimace on her face. "Well. That's a complication I hadn't thought about, obviously. I don't know why I never did, I mean, it's not like I didn't know our species are still genetically compatible. Pretty stupid, hunh?"
Tom studied her carefully, her reaction completely unanticipated. He'd expected her to be angry, to blame him. His studies of human behavior had led him to believe that most humans faced with such a shock would react so; not joke, and take a share in the responsibility. "You're not angry?" He ventured, even though he could tell she wasn't, not really.
She shook her head. "No. If anything's happened, it's as much my responsibility as yours. I'm a big girl, I know all about birth control. I was careless." Her smile turned tender, and she reached over to take his hand in hers, bringing it up to rub her cheek against it. "I guess I was just too blinded by lust to think clearly."
The satiny feel of her skin against the back of his hand, and her comment about lust made him aware of the physical again, and suddenly the screen of Sloan's emotions wasn't nearly as effective as the echo of Lewis and Carlie's lovemaking intensified within him. He tensed involuntarily, trying not to react, but it was like trying to ask water not to flow downhill. His body was instantly taut, aching. Sloan studied him, looked up at the ceiling for a moment, then back to him.
"Pretty bad?" She queried.
"You have no idea," he said, and it came out a whisper.
She grinned, a very evil grin. It surprised him. He'd never seen that expression on her face before. Beneath it, leaking through the stronger feelings he was getting from the other couple, he could feel a sensual stirring in her. She brought his hand to her mouth, and began to slide her tongue between his fingers. Her other hand slid up his thigh then curved over his crotch, molding the rigid shape of his penis against her palm. His mind filled with images of her beneath him, naked, her creamy skin under his mouth, her hair tangled, her mouth soft. He shook off the image with difficulty, and caught her hands in his. He knew he had to stop her now, before she forgot, before he forgot.
"Sloan, no," he said hoarsely. "Remember? We shouldn't take the chance!"
She lifted sultry eyes to his as she tugged her hands free and reached for his belt buckle.
"Why, Tom! And here I thought you were the experienced one! There's lots of things we can do without taking any chances at all, or we can hunt up a condom."
Sloan finished unbuckling his belt, then opened the button on his slacks, and drew down the zipper with infinite care. Her fingers slid under the edge of his briefs and wrapped around his cock, her skin cool against the heat of his own. He could tell that what she was doing made her feel adventurous and wanton, and that aroused her strongly. In turn that added to his excitement. Not that he needed it. She stroked him, her grip firm, and careful, and leaned forward to kiss him as she played.
Lips meshed, tongues touched, slid, stroked. Tom tasted her desire, felt it in the press of her breasts against his chest, in the quickened beat of her heart. He lifted his hands to cup her breasts, brushing his thumbs back and forth over her nipples until they were hard enough to feel through layers of satin and cotton. Sloan made a soft, excited sound and arched forward, pressing her breasts harder into his hands, and the rhythm of her hand on his cock faltered as she forgot what she was doing, distracted by his touch.
He pulled his mouth from hers and kissed a pathway to her ear, where he made her shiver with a series of delicate licks and nibbles before he drew back a little to whisper.
"Take your clothes off. I want you naked."
A jolt of excitement went through her at his words. It made him shift and push against her hand. She caressed him softly for a moment, then let go and sat back to strip off her t-shirt over her head, then unfasten her bra. She dropped both carelessly to the floor, then stood up and slowly unzipped her jeans, and pushed them down and off. She posed for a moment in nothing but her panties and the chestnut cascade of her hair. He smiled, remembering her tease from the night before.
So did she apparently. She didn't go any further, instead she moved to straddle his thigh as she began unbuttoning his shirt, bending to flick the tip of her tongue across his skin with each opened button. Her hips rocked as she worked, and after a few moments he could feel moisture through her panties and his slacks, and smell the heavy scent of her arousal, female and receptive. Every instinct screamed at him to push her to the floor and take her, to forge his claim on her by planting a child, his child, in her body. He resisted. Barely. She trusted him. He kept telling himself that. Sloan trusted him. He wasn't an animal, to be ruled by his instincts, strong as they were. He would not betray her trust.
The slide of fabric against his skin as she tugged his shirttails from his slacks seemed strangely sensual, making his breath catch, making his pulse faster. The simple sensation of undressing had never affected him like this before. She reached to undo the cuff-button on his left wrist, and when she let go of that hand to do the other side, he reached to cup her breast with the hand she'd just freed.
The little buck of her hips encouraged him, and as her fingers fumbled with the button he framed her nipple between his fingers and lowered his head to suckle it. Sloan gasped, cupping his head in her hand, holding him to her as he drew hard on the tight-furled nub, pressing it between teeth and tongue until she moaned his name and shuddered, her delight as arousing as a physical caress.
That image of her on her back beneath him exploded into his mind again. His response was instantaneous and mindless. He had her halfway to the floor before her startled cry kick-started his intellect once more. He deliberately changed destinations, pushing books and magazines off the coffee table with one arm as he lowered her to its surface.
As she stared up at him, wide-eyed, he hooked his thumbs in her panties and slid them down, then off, and pushed her thighs apart with his hands. He sensed the flare of anticipation in her as his hands moved inward, parting the soft folds, opening her. He waited then, deliberately prolonging the suspense until she squirmed.
He smiled, and blew softly across her damp, heated flesh. "Please, what?"
She shivered. "You know what."
"Tell me anyway," he said, deliberately provocative.
That sense of wantonness flared in her again, intense, arousing. Her body lifted toward his, her need too powerful to remain still. "Touch me," she whispered. "Put your mouth on me, put your fingers in me."
Her words and the unalloyed need behind them were like a torch, setting him aflame. He bent and slicked his tongue over her creamy heat. Remembering her request he brought a finger to the tender mouth of her sex and pushed it inward, feeling her muscles tighten around him in a hot, silky caress. He eased another finger into her, and she arched upward with a tiny cry, shaking, bucking. He flattened one hand over her belly to hold her still so he could torture her, and himself better. He was actually panting as he caressed her, aching, ready to explode. Sloan reached down and grabbed him, pulling him up over her, pushing his slacks and briefs down so he was bare against her as her legs wrapped around his and she kissed him frantically, then let him go with a moan.
"We have got to find a condom," she said hoarsely. "I need you."
He didn't want to interrupt things to go searching for an annoying piece of latex, and he resisted her suggestion, sliding himself between her thighs, stroking through the wet heat of her sex, but not entering. He could resist. He had to. She wasn't helping, though, she kept lifting and squirming as he moved, trying to force him inside her.
"Sloan, stop it!" he ordered, his voice holding a distinct edge of desperation. "Hold still!"
"I can't!" she moaned. "I need you inside me!"
Her words were accompanied by an overwhelming burst of sheer, animal need. With a groan, Tom caught the satiny curves of her hips in his hands and held her still as he thrust deeply inside her, reveling in the way she closed around him, surrounding him with tight, wet heat, simultaneously relieving and inflaming his own desire. Sloan made a dark little sound, her need now shot through with a hint of satisfaction. As he pulled back to stroke again, he suddenly realized what he was doing and yanked himself free of her with a groan, trying desperately to get himself under control. He knew better. Even just that little bit wasn't safe. He knew that.
Sloan clutched at him, whimpering, her frustrated need flooding through him, exacerbating his own. He slid back onto his haunches and grabbed her, pulling her to the edge of the table where he had better access, lifting her hips to open her as he buried his tongue in her heat. He filled his senses with the scent and taste of her, using his tongue as he wanted to use his cock since he couldn't have what he needed most.
Her frustration instantly dissolved into renewed arousal, her body taut and arched as he pushed her over the edge. She bucked, clutching the edges of the table in her hands, her head tossing, then suddenly she stiffened and her whole body shuddered as pleasure exploded through her in a pulsing wave of sparks. Her cry of release was wild, intense, and completely silent. He heard it only in his mind.
As the waves slowly ebbed, Tom pulled her into his arms, holding her on his lap as she gradually came back to herself. With her body tight against his, he realized her climax had taken the edge off his own need. Feeling her come had been enough of a release to ease him back to a place of relative control. He opened to her again, trying to use her satisfaction to assist his control, and with a sudden shock he realized she wasn't satisfied, not at all. The climax had taken a little of the urgency, but she was still very needy. As if she knew he'd noticed, she sighed against his shoulder.
"It's just not the same," she said, sounding regretful.
"Not having you inside me when it happens."
He frowned. "You didn't enjoy it?"
She shook her head vehemently. "Oh, no, I didn't mean that! I mean, it's good, lovely, but it's different, not as intense. I don't know how to explain it, but it's just different. It makes me want more, instead of being the end. I have no idea if that made any sense at all," she finished, looking frustrated at her inability to communicate effectively.
He realized he probably understood better than she did. After all, he'd been taught details of human sexuality that were probably not understood by most of the people to whom they applied. A woman's body was designed for both external and internal stimulation. Without both, there was a definite difference, he just hadn't expected her to be able to make that distinction. That she had told him she was more aware of her body than he'd realized, more sensitive, more sensual. Thinking of that, Tom wished for a moment that they were at the training house, instead of here. There were items there he could use that under the circumstances would make satisfying that part of her need easier, though they might shock her, she was very naive in some ways.
As he contemplated the erotic thought of shocking her that way, she leaned forward, and started to kiss his throat, moving toward his ear, each kiss punctuated by the hot flicker of her tongue against his skin. She kissed his throat, his ear, then her hands came up to the back of his head, tilting his mouth to a better angle. Her mouth touched his, her tongue tracing the seam of his lips, parting them. As she kissed him, she let one hand slide down his chest to briefly shape itself over his still-rigid cock before moving on to find his hand.
Lifting on her knees, she took his hand and guided it between her legs, her question unspoken, his answer assumed. He smiled, and gently parted her. There was more than one way to give her the stimulation she craved. She caught her breath, trembling as he slowly eased three fingers into her sleek depths. She put her hand on his penis again, stroking him as he began to move his hand, separating his fingers to spread her wider. She gasped, her head tipping back, her thighs tightening.
Her response was so uninhibited it made his own desire flare more hotly. He pushed into her hand, enjoying the slide of her fingers around him, but remembering another night and how her mouth had felt on him. He wanted that again, but he didn't want to ask. He wanted her to want it first, that made it so much better. Glancing around the room, he thought of a way to give her what she needed, and smiled, slowly easing his fingers out of her. She moaned and opened her eyes.
He smiled. "I won't, I just want to facilitate things a little."
She groaned. "How can you use words like that when I can hardly remember my own name!"
"Years of training," he said, amused.
His words sent a powerful surge of erotic reaction through her, and he was momentarily puzzled until he realized why. She had come to associate that phrase with the provocative tale he had spun for her the night they had first made love. He remembered her response to that, and smiled slowly. She might be naive, but she had a very good imagination. Shifting her off his lap, he slid his arms under her and eased her back onto the floor.
"Tom?" Her query was a husky, seductive prompt.
"Close your eyes," he said, and felt the little flicker of anticipation from her that told him she'd obeyed. He quickly stood and finished undressing, laying his clothes over the entertainment center. Moving to kneel beside her, Tom ran his hand the length of her torso in a gentle sweep, letting her know he was there. Sloan started to open her eyes then, and he stopped her, covering them with his hand.
"No, keep them closed. Just feel." Tom said, knowing that keeping her eyes closed would allow her to fantasize better, to pretend it was more than just his hands and mouth on her body. He put his hand between her thighs again, stroking with light, butterfly touches that soon had her hips arching, her thighs spreading wider to accommodate his touch. Her excitement was contagious, spurring him to aching fullness, but he sublimated his own need so he could give her pleasure first. Giving her pleasure was like taking it himself, anyway, since he experienced it with her.
Moving, Tom straddled her and leaned down to brush his lips over hers, softly, until she lifted her head to chase his kiss, then he gave it to her, a delicious slide of tongue over teeth, against tongue. He shifted his weight backward, to make her think he was going to enter her and continued to distract her with his mouth as he used his hand to ease the ache between her thighs. His fingers slid easily into her slick, heated depths. For a few seconds she arched into the feeling, making soft sound of pleasure in her throat, then she stopped.
He pressed close, keeping her in place with his body. She clutched at him and relaxed a little, at least she stopped trying to get away. He suspected that with him so close, she was pretending it was him, so he moved his hips, sliding his erection against her clitoris, intensifying the level of sensation she felt as he pressed his fingers deeper. She gasped, her eyes going unfocused for a moment. He grinned, and bent to nibble the sensitive skin of her neck, pressing kisses along it until he reached her ear.
He shifted his hips, stroking himself through her wet curls in tandem with the slide of his fingers out, then back in. "This is better, isn't it? Much better?" he whispered against her ear.
She whimpered, her hips lifting involuntarily, her response swift and deeply aroused. It was nearly as exciting for him, feeling her excitement, and his own, an exquisite torture. Remembering her reaction to verbal stimulation, he spoke again, deliberately raw.
"You like it, I can feel you do. Remember, you can't lie to me."
"Oh, god . . ." She put her hands over her face, hiding herself from him, or trying to. She had stopped resisting, giving herself over to the sensation, working toward completion. The stimulation was starting to be too much for him, and he moved away, replacing his cock with his hand, curling his fingers over her mons, circling a fingertip around her clitoris as he continued to move the his other hand rhythmically.
"Admit it, it feels good, doesn't it?" He kept his voice silky and low, feeling how strongly she responded to the sound. "You enjoy it. It's what you need."
She moaned an equivocal sound, but nodded. The muscles in her thighs went taut, and he watched as her toes curled into the carpet, and her legs started shaking. He had felt those signs before, but never seen them. When he was inside her, he couldn't. Watching her lose herself to pleasure was intoxicating, almost as good as feeling it. She was close, so very close "That's it," he whispered. "Like that, just like that, let it come."
Leaning over, he caught one of her taut nipples between his lips and laved it with his tongue, his fingers still stroking between her thighs, pushing her response. She moaned, tossing her head, whispering a litany that could have been 'oh god' or maybe 'oh Tom' or both. He let her hips set the pace, keeping up with her increasing need, and suddenly she went still. She let out a cry as a visible shudder shook her, and her pleasure exploded through his waiting senses making him moan along with her.
After a little while he gently eased his hand from her. Sloan opened her eyes and looked at him, a slightly dazed smile on her face.
"God, you are way too good at that," she accused.
He grinned, bending to put his nose against hers. "I was well trained."
Sloan shivered, and he felt the tingle of erotic awareness his words provoked. He grinned. "And you like that idea."
"I do not!" she protested, blushing.
"Your body says differently."
"My body wasn't talking," she said, lifting her chin.
"Oh yes it was. You know you can't lie to me."
She made a face, "Can't you just let me pretend? Come on, this is hard for me, I'm a prude."
He chuckled. "Not a prude. Just inexperienced."
She eyed him, her gaze sweeping down his body, taking in his still-aroused state, and she smiled slowly. "Not in everything," she said, leaning forward.
"Definitely not in everything," he whispered as wet heat of her mouth closed over him.
Sloan woke early. She lay in bed staring at the growing daylight outside the window until she started to worry that her restlessness might wake up Tom, and he needed sleep to continue recovering. Finally she slipped out of bed, tucking the comforter around him to keep the morning chill away. As she pulled on her sweats, she smiled at her foible, it wasn't like he needed the blanket, he was her personal furnace most of the time. Still, somehow it made her feel better to do it.
The house was quiet as she used the bathroom then went downstairs, hoping to scare up some coffee, or black tea-- anything with caffeine. As she got to the bottom of the stairs, she noticed that parts of the pale oak flooring were stained dark mahogany where Carlie's assailants had bled on it. Sloan shuddered a little, sidling past the stains into the kitchen, trying not to think about what had happened.
Filling the tea-kettle with water, she set it to heat, got out a mug, and started looking for caffeine. Failing to find anything but a large selection of herbal teas, she was about to give up and choose one of those when a voice startled her.
"Try the cabinet closest to the refrigerator, second shelf, all the way in the back."
Startled she whirled with a gasp, and saw Lewis there. She frowned.
"What did you say?"
"I told you where to find the caffeinated tea."
"How do you know I was even looking for it?"
He shrugged. "Easy. It's morning, you're human."
"Not all humans drink caffeinated beverages in the morning," she countered.
"True, but you do."
Sloan scowled at him. "What, you can smell that about me, too?"
He studied her for a moment, then slowly began to smile. "Ah, Tom told you about that, I see. He is remarkably forthcoming with you."
"We're honest with each other," she said a little defensively, trying not to be embarrassed.
Lewis nodded. "Good. That's best, I think. Your water is boiling."
Sloan shut off the burner, and turned to find Lewis holding out a tea-ball and a box of loose-leaf Darjeeling. Sheepishly she took both, and started the tea steeping in her mug. As she did, Lewis started rummaging in the herbal teas, finding one he apparently liked, and using the remainder of the water she'd heated to fill his own mug. Since he was wearing a pair of loose sweatpants and nothing else, her eyes were drawn to the tattoo on his back as he worked. Finally she had to ask. It was killing her not to know.
"Those markings on your back. What are they?"
He turned and looked at her, eyebrows lifted. "You don't know?"
She shook her head. "No, but I noticed that you and Tom both have them. So did the mummy of the girl. You're the only ones I've seen who have them, though. Is it a clan or tribe marking? A status indicator? Or maybe something like a Yakuza tattoo? It has to have some meaning."
"Tattoos are a common thing, they don't have to mean anything."
"True, but these do," she said, echoing his earlier comment.
He smiled. "Yes. Ask Tom."
At the disgusted sound she made under her breath, he chuckled. "You're much too easy, Sloan Parker."
"I am not easy!" Sloan exclaimed, with mock annoyance, then couldn't keep herself from smiling. "Cheap, maybe, but not easy."
He laughed, and saluted her with his mug, then looked toward the door. Sloan figured his reaction meant that either Tom or Carlie was up, and waited. A moment later Carlie came in looking sleepy, but far less stressed than the previous night. She moved over to Lewis, who put an arm around her, pulling her close. She leaned her head against his shoulder and sighed, then sniffed, looked at his mug, and then up at him.
"Being bad today, are you?" Carlie asked with a grin.
Lewis nodded at Sloan. "No, that's her tea you're smelling. I don't need caffeine to get up."
Carlie grinned and winked "No, that you don't, I can attest to that. But it smells good," she said a little wistfully.
Lewis chuckled. "Help yourself. Just because I don't drink it doesn't mean you can't. Just don't expect me to be sympathetic when you crash."
Carlie pouted. "Well, if I can't get any sympathy, I'll take this instead," she announced, wrapping her fingers around his, lifting his cup to her mouth, taking a sip. Lewis sent a long-suffering look in Sloan's direction and surrendered his tea.
Sloan smiled, wondering if Tom would be so obedient to her. Thinking of that stirred memories of the previous night, and her face suddenly got very warm. Carlie and Lewis both looked at her curiously, which only made things worse. God, she really had to learn how to control herself around these people. It was like living with your clothes off.
Carlie smiled gently. "It's okay, Sloan. You don't have to be embarrassed. It's perfectly normal, don't worry about it."
"I'm not worried about it. I'm just . . . not used to it."
"After being with Tom all this time?" Lewis queried.
Sloan had thought about that herself on more than one occasion since being around Lewis a lot. She looked at him. "You never try to hide what you are, not from me at least. He did. I think he tried to be as 'human' as possible when he was around me, around us. He never made it clear just how much he could feel, so I really didn't understand until just recently. He wanted to blend in."
Lewis nodded. "Exactly as he was taught. To be ourselves is to be a target, so the less one reveals, the better."
"You don't seem to adhere to that philosophy," Sloan pointed out.
"Not with you or Tom, or Carlie-- there's no need. You know what I am. However, I am completely capable of camouflaging myself, when necessary."
Sloan had to admit he was right. There had been several times over the last few days when he'd demonstrated that ability. Last night, for example. He'd been perfectly in character, the distressed-but-coping husband and father. Last night. She shivered, though she wasn't really cold. Carlie sighed, obviously catching the drift of Sloan's thoughts, and stepped away from Lewis, putting down the tea she'd taken from him.
"We should start getting ready to leave soon, shouldn't we?" Carlie asked. "How much should I pack?"
Lewis reached out and put his hand gently on her arm. "If you don't want to leave here, I'll come up with another solution."
Carlie shook her head. "No. I don't want to stay if it means putting us in any danger."
"I can handle danger," Lewis said, with quiet certainty. "I've done it all my life."
"I know that." Carlie said, her chin squaring stubbornly. "I just think it's stupid to tempt fate. So, last night you said you had more than one alternate location. What are my choices?"
"Idaho, New Mexico, Colorado, or Texas."
"Idaho is too close, but I think I could live with any of the others."
Lewis nodded. "I'll make the arrangements, and then we can start to pack. Tom and Sloan can help." He started out of the room, then turned back. "You should eat something."
"We all should," Carlie corrected him. "Packing should never be attempted on an empty stomach. Sloan and I will start breakfast while you do whatever it is you need to do."
"And the smell of food should get Tom awake," Lewis said, grinning, as he left the kitchen.
Sloan chuckled. "I can see they were close. He knows Tom's eating habits."
Carlie nodded, opening the refrigerator to peer inside. "I think maybe Lewis sees Tom as kind of 'family.' A son, or little brother."
Sloan stared at the other woman in surprise for a moment. Apparently there were some things Carlie didn't know. "Um, yeah," she managed after a moment, trying the Declaration of Independence instead of her more usual Table of Elements.
Carlie turned around and looked at Sloan, eyebrows lifted. "What?" she asked in a tone that was more an order than a request.
Sloan widened her eyes innocently. "What do you mean 'what?'" she asked, thinking: 'When in the course of human events . . .'
"You know what, you're not that good at shielding. Why did what I said get such a strong reaction?"
Sloan sighed. "I'm horrible at this shielding stuff. You have to teach me how to do it better."
"Stop trying to distract me. Out with it."
Sloan bit her lip. "I think you should ask Lewis." Who was going to kill her. She knew it. Although, in her own defense, he had never said the subject was taboo.
Carlie's eyes narrowed. "I think you should tell me before I get really annoyed with you."
Sloan sighed. "Okay, fine, but don't kill the messenger, okay?"
"I promise. Now, what?"
"I, um . . ." Sloan trailed off for a moment as she tried to think of how to say it, remembering how Tom had told her, how shocked she had been, and how aroused. She had no idea how Carlie would take it though. Lewis wasn't just her love; he was her mate, the father of her children. She loved him, though. That was the most important thing. Still, it was going to be a blow. She took a deep breath, and spoke.
"I'm pretty sure neither Lewis or Tom ever saw their relationship as a familial one," she said, finally. "It was more complicated than that."
Carlie stared at her expectantly.
Sloan sighed again. "Are you going to make me say it?"
"Is it that difficult?" Carlie asked.
"Well, yeah it's that difficult," Sloan snapped irritably. "If it wasn't, I'd have said it already. I mean, I know it was tough for me, and the circumstances in which I found out were a lot different."
"Sloan, will you stop beating around the bush?"
"They were lovers," Sloan blurted out. There. She'd said it. She watched as Carlie absorbed the information, her face blank. She was quiet for a moment and Sloan wished, not for the first time, that she had a Dominant's empathic abilities. Finally Carlie met her eyes, smiling and shaking her head slightly.
"All that angst over something so unimportant? Sloan, relax. It's all right." She turned back to the refrigerator and took out a carton of eggs and a bottle of milk. "Let's get some food started. Can you scramble eggs?"
Sloan stared at her friend's back, not quite sure she'd heard correctly. "Eggs?"
"You know, hard, oval, full of gooey-squishy stuff?" Carlie said, grinning.
"Wait . . . is that all? Aren't you mad?"
"What, that Lewis had lovers before me? Hon, I'd have to be a moron not to have figured that out by now."
"Well, of course, but he didn't tell you about Tom!"
Carlie closed the refrigerator, picked up her mug and went to sit down at the table, motioning for Sloan to join her. Sloan did, a little nervously.
"Since I can tell you're not going to relax until I explain, I will. You're right, he didn't tell me, not flat out. But it doesn't upset me because I know him well enough to know it wasn't because of the reasons you're probably thinking. Lewis has told me exactly what 'training' entailed, and I know he's trained a lot of operatives, of both genders."
Carlie paused a moment, and Sloan tried to imagine how Lewis had gone about telling Carlie about 'training.' Somehow she couldn't quite see him doing it the way Tom had. No, it had probably been very matter-of-fact. After taking a sip of tea, Carlie went on.
"He may not have specifically told me about Tom, but I could have deduced that myself had I ever really thought about it. As I said, I knew he'd trained a lot of operatives. However, I don't see him rushing off to rescue most of them. Tom matters, and I don't think that's because they had sex. I could feel that Lewis had a strong emotional attachment to Tom, so there was nothing for him to hide by not telling me. As for what those emotions were, I'm not sure he'd resolved that in his own mind. Not before he left, anyway."
"Then you're not upset that he didn't tell you?"
Carlie shook her head. "If it had mattered, he would have told me."
"Told you what?" Lewis asked from the doorway.
Carlie turned, smiling. "That you and Tom were once lovers."
Lewis frowned slightly. "I didn't mention it?" Carlie shook her head. Lewis shrugged. "I suppose I thought you would have guessed, since I told you about training. Sorry. Is that important?"
"No, not really, but it's an interesting piece of the puzzle. You want sausage, or just eggs and toast?"
"Might as well cook it all, seeing as how we won't be back to eat it later."
Sloan looked from one to the other of them, and shook her head, exasperated. How could they be so damned blasé about it? She couldn't believe it. On the other hand, it meant Lewis wasn't likely to kill her, after all. That was definitely a plus.
"So, can you?" Carlie asked.
"Can I what?" Sloan replied blankly, trying to remember if Carlie had asked her a question.
"Make scrambled eggs?" Carlie repeated, plopping the paperboard carton into Sloan's hands.
"Oh that! Yes, of course. Any moron can make scrambled eggs," she said disdainfully.
Lewis grinned. "Then let this moron make them, and you make some of those scones you made the other morning. Those were good."
Sloan felt a flush of pleasure at the compliment, and then got annoyed with herself for it. How come no one ever complimented her on her outstanding lab technique, or the speed and accuracy of her research? No, instead she got comments on her cooking. Homo Dominant might be an evolved species, but they apparently came with all the same old gender stereotypes. She looked up to find Lewis' gaze on her face, and she wondered how much of what had just gone through her mind he'd managed to follow. He smiled.
"Did I ever thank you for spotting that pattern in Givens' activities, the one that gave us access to her?"
Sloan sighed. That answered that question. "No, and don't bother. I know you're just saying that so I'll make the damned scones." She shoved the eggs into Lewis' hands and turned to Carlie. "Where do you keep the baking supplies?"
Carlie chuckled and pointed to a cabinet. Sloan turned her back on the couple and went over to see if they had what she needed.
"Carlie, something strange happened last night," Lewis said quietly. "With everything that happened, I forgot to ask you about it."
Carlie gave a strangled-sounding laugh. "Something strange? Which strange thing in particular were you wondering about?"
There was a moment of quiet, and out of her peripheral vision Sloan saw Lewis gather Carlie close, stroking her hair as he comforted her. She averted her eyes to give them at least a semblance of privacy, knowing that if she tried to leave the room she'd just make it worse. Finally Lewis spoke.
"When Tom and I went upstairs to the nursery, at first we couldn't find the kids. At first I thought you'd hidden them somewhere, then suddenly, they were just *there,* like they'd been there all along."
Curious, Sloan turned in time to see Carlie pull back, putting a shaky hand to her mouth.
"Oh God, how could I have forgotten?"
Carlie shot a look at Sloan and then her gaze shifted back to Lewis, who looked at Sloan and shrugged. Sloan realized with a bit of a warm glow that they had just decided they could trust her with something. Carlie nodded, then started talking.
"Luke's been doing that to me ever since you left, but he was just playing then. When I thought they were in danger, I told him to do it again, but with the girls too. I wasn't sure if he could, but he did!"
"Did what?" Lewis asked again, a touch of irritation in his voice.
"I don't know! Not exactly. I don't know if he's figured out how to project an utterly perfect illusion of not being there, or if he's teleporting, but he can do one or the other."
Sloan had never been able to imagine anything catching Lewis off-balance, but that had. He tensed, and looked at Carlie as if he thought she might be lying. Sloan found herself thinking of Kevin, and his ability to 'freeze' her, which Tom hadn't known about. This new generation of Dominants must have even more psi abilities than the last. The mutation wasn't stable yet, the species was still evolving. She opened her mouth to mention Kevin to them, but Lewis spoke first.
"Teleportation is impossible," he said flatly.
"I know," Carlie said. "That's why I think it has to be some kind of illusion. That's possible, isn't it? After all, we have other mental capabilities that most humans don't have. But it's good. So good he can even fool me."
Lewis frowned. "And me, apparently. That could be very problematic."
Carlie sighed. "Tell me about it. He scared the pants off me that first time."
"If he'd held out much longer last night, he'd have done the same to me," Lewis said, a little amusement in his voice.
Carlie laughed. "You? Scared? Never."
Lewis looked into her eyes. "Yes, sometimes. Last night, when I couldn't reach you . . ." He broke off, and pulled her close again, his face against her hair, his eyes closed. "That was enough fear for a lifetime."
Sloan decided that obvious or not, it was time to give them a moment of privacy. She sidled toward the door and slipped out, leaving them alone.
Lewis held Carlie close, trying not to recreate the fear he'd felt last night. That was the last thing she needed to feel from him. She needed his strength, not his weakness. He was vaguely aware that Sloan had gone out. For a human, she wasn't so bad. He supposed Tom could have done worse. Carlie sighed, and tightened her arms around him in a hug, then moved back a little so she could look up into his face.
"Lewis, I don't know how we're going to be able to handle Luke, he's just not aware enough to understand that 'hiding' isn't a game. And what happens when he figures out other things he can do with that talent? What if he can use it to get us to do things? To manipulate us?"
Lewis stiffened, and Carlie's gaze questioned him as she sensed the tension.
"I just realized that what Luke has is a variation of my coercive ability," he explained.
Carlie looked puzzled. "Your what?"
"Do you remember that time I made you feel what I was feeling?"
Carlie's face flushed a little, and her lips parted. He could feel the surge of arousal that slid through her at that memory. He smiled, but kept his response minimal. That wasn't why he'd brought it up. She nodded.
"I remember. Very well."
"That's what I meant. I call that coercion, or forced rapport. What Luke is doing is a refined version of that. He can not only force rapport, he can control what he tells you. I can only give what I'm actually experiencing. He can do more. It's interesting that he has this ability. It means the trait is genetically stable enough to be passed on. If Luke has it, chances are the girls do too, unless it's sex-linked. That's always a possibility. Only time will tell."
Carlie moaned. "Oh god, I hope it's sex-linked. Keeping track of one disappearing baby is going to be bad enough. If they can all do it, I might just lose my mind!"
"We'll find a way to cope. We have to."
She sighed and nodded. After a moment she looked up at him again. "Can I ask you something?" she said seriously, strangely hesitant.
He wondered what could make her hesitant with him. It was a rare feeling. "Anything. You know that."
She paused for a moment, clearly composing her question, then finally spoke. "About you and Tom. Have you worked that out?"
Lewis frowned. "Worked what out?"
"Your . . . issues. I know that sounds like stupid psychological doublespeak, but it's not. I need to know if you've resolved your feelings toward him, come to some kind of peace about him."
He studied her closely, trying to feel what she was apprehensive about, but her emotions were too complicated, too confusing. That frustrated him. He needed to know. "Carlie, you're not worried that we were lovers, are you?"
She shook her head. "No. I'm not worried about the sex thing, that doesn't bother me. But, I know that dealing with emotions isn't easy for you. I don't want your feelings for Tom to come between us."
He met her gaze, slightly puzzled. "How could they?"
She looked down, swallowed hard, then back up. He felt uncertainty from her. "I don't know. I guess that's what I'm asking. What are your feelings for him?"
She was right, this was difficult for him. He thought back to what he and Tom had spoken about, what they had resolved between them, and attempted an answer. "I don't know. I know how I feel about you, and Luke, and Sorcha, and Arian. With Tom, it's the same, but it's also different."
"You love him?" Carlie asked quietly.
He sighed. "Perhaps yes. I like him. Very much. He is . . . important to me."
He gave her the same words that he had given Tom. They had a vastly different effect. She looked down at her hands, twisting her fingers together. Fear leaked out around her shield. He caught her hands in his and bent until he could see her face. Her mouth was soft, like it was before she cried, and her eyes were sheened with unshed tears. He couldn't believe how much that made him hurt inside. He pulled her close, trying to soothe her with his hands, trying to get her to open up to him.
"No, Carlie, don't. There's nothing to fear. I told you, the same, but not the same. I'm not good at emotions, so it's hard for me to say how I feel, but he is no threat to you. Believe that." He had to make her see, had to make her feel. Feel. Of course.
Lewis closed his eyes, and enveloped her in his emotions; letting her, no, making her feel them. She resisted for a moment, then let him in. He felt Carlie relax, felt relief flood through her, almost orgasmic in its intensity. He should have realized how fragile she was after last night. She needed reassurance, needed to know he would be there for her, not leaving her in favor of a previous emotional connection. That was what she feared. Why hadn't he realized that? Raised human, used to the more casual relationships humans usually had, she couldn't know that the bond they shared was very nearly unbreakable.
"I'm sorry. I didn't understand," he said against her ear.
Carlie pulled back so she could look up at him, her emotions as clear on her face as they were in her mind. She didn't need to say a word. He just held her, absorbing her feelings. He needed that as much as she did. After a moment she spoke again, her voice calm.
"Do you still need him?"
He considered that, and shook his head. "Yes, and no. Need is too strong a word, I think. He is still important to me, and I enjoy having him around, but what I really needed was to deal with the feelings that his leaving created in me. That's done. We've resolved it."
She took that in and was silent for a bit, then she spoke again.
"What will they do now?"
He shrugged. "I don't know. I doubt they've planned anything, frankly. Things have been too chaotic since we rescued Tom."
"If you like, if you think it would be safe, they could come with us," Carlie suggested.
Lewis could feel the honesty of that offer, and was startled anew by the depth of her generosity. He tightened his arms around her. "We can give them that option, but it will be up to them."
She nodded. "Of course." She reached up and put her arms around his neck, pulling him gently toward her. "I love you, Lewis."
She backed her words with an emotional punch that took his breath. He felt a strange painful ache at the realization she'd never said that to him before. Not to *him*. She'd said it to part of him, the part that was Llyn. But never to his whole, integrated self. He knew that was what she meant now, and he let his mouth take hers in a searing kiss, communicating his own feelings in a way she would understand, though he had not yet managed to break his conditioning enough to say the words.
Tom woke and knew instantly that he was alone. That was a slight, but not terrible disappointment. Sloan was normally an early riser, she had probably gotten up to keep from waking him. Lying in bed, he reached out with his extra senses to see if anyone else was awake, and got a definite yes. Everyone else was. Well, almost everyone. The babies were sleeping still, not surprising, he supposed, after their interrupted night. He was still amazed by how quickly they had calmed. He had expected them to be less resilient.
Even as he thought of that, Tom sensed one small mind becoming more alert. He sensed mild discomfort, and loneliness. Knowing everyone else was busy downstairs, he swung out of bed, pulled on his jeans, and went to see if he could temporarily substitute for a parent. He padded barefoot down the hall to the nursery, and quietly stepped inside. Immediately discomfort and loneliness took second place to intense curiosity as Arian sat up and looked at him.
After a moment he felt recognition from her. She remembered him, probably from the night before, but he supposed it could be from earlier; he and Sloan had visited Carlie and the babies several times before they had moved up here. He wondered if her memory was triggered visually, or by his 'signature', the combination of personality, emotion, and thought-patterns that were unique to each person.
Moving over to the crib Arian shared with her siblings, he cautiously reached down and picked her up, trying not to wake the others. Judging by the suspicious way her pajamas sagged around the rear, she needed changing, though thankfully by the smell things weren't as bad as they could be. He'd watched Lewis change Sorcha the night before, he thought he could manage it. Arian was quiet, studying him intently as he placed her on the changing table and considered the one-piece, footed garment she wore. After a moment he determined that he would have to remove it completely to accomplish his task. He tugged cautiously on the zipper, worried about catching it on her skin. Arian giggled and kicked, squirming.
"Hold still, I'm new at this," Tom muttered, giving her a stern look.
She ignored him. When he finally had the zipper down, he was faced with the challenge of carefully extracting her from the stretchy garment. Apparently she thought it great fun to resist this attempt, and it took him a good while to remove it and lay it aside. Finally he started to open the tapes that held the diaper closed, then stopped again, trying to remember the correct sequence. Get out the new diaper first, *then* take off the old diaper. Okay. He opened the drawer under the table and extracted a fresh diaper, placing it so it was handy, then he tugged at the tapes, opened the old diaper, and removed it. Holding it gingerly by finger and thumb, he tried to remember what to do with it. Hamper. Right.
He opened the hamper and deposited the soiled diaper as quickly as he could, wrinkling his nose as the smell wafted up. As he attempted to reclose the hamper he managed to knock the lid to the floor instead. He sighed and bent down and pick it up, but movement in his peripheral vision brought him upright just as Arian tried to crawl off the table. Heart pounding, he grabbed her just in time to keep her from tumbling to the floor. Granted it was carpeted, but still! Heart pounding, he placed her back on the table, and this time put his hand firmly, but gently over her middle.
"I mean it now, stay put!" He backed his words with a mental command.
Arian's reaction was instantaneous. She screwed up her face, projecting distress, clearly preparing to howl. Worried that she would wake the others, Tom quickly picked her up again, cradling her as Lewis had shown him. She settled down immediately, and he sighed in relief. Two disasters averted.
"I'm going to put you down now," he said quietly, projecting reassurance. "Just so we can finish this."
He laid her down, and waited, holding his breath. She stayed put, though she wasn't precisely still, as she grabbed a foot and appeared to be trying to eat it. Amazing flexibility, he thought as he quickly unfolded the new diaper and slid it under her butt. It was strange to think that her posterior wasn't a whole lot bigger than his hand. With the diaper now in place, he quickly wiped her clean with one of the damp-tissue things from the box on the table and showered her liberally with equally handy baby-powder, as he'd seen someone do on a television commercial.
That done, he undid one of the diaper tapes and managed to get it stuck in approximately the right place, but her foot-in-mouth position made it virtually impossible to fasten the other side. Gently he tugged on her knee, which caused her to laugh, and fortunately also release her foot. He quickly tried to slap the tape down, and stuck it to her stomach instead of the plastic surface. Damn. Gently he eased the tape up, hoping it didn't hurt. Her skin was so soft, like . . . well, like a baby's behind. He now understood that metaphor. Fortunately the tape removal didn't seem to bother her, because all she did was try to grab his fingers, her thoughts cheerful and intent.
He finally got the tape off her skin and stuck it to the diaper instead. Pleased, he picked up her garment, planning to put it back on her. As he tried to get one of her feet into it, the tape he'd just stuck down popped free. Annoyed, he stuck it back down. Within seconds it peeled up again. Tentatively he touched the surface, and realized that it was no longer sticky. The combination of skin-oils and baby-powder from her stomach had rendered it useless. He sighed, and pulled another diaper from the drawer, wondering how many of them was going to waste before he got it right.
It only took one. He managed to do it right the second time, without too much trouble. He was quite proud of himself. Unfortunately getting Arian's clothing back on proved to be even more problematic than getting them off had been. Grinning wryly, he gave up and picked her up wearing nothing but a diaper. It was the first time he'd ever had more trouble getting a female into her clothes than out of them. Tom hoped this wasn't a predictor of Arian's future behavior, but the thought of Lewis playing the classic 'outraged father' role made him chuckle.
As he stood there, not sure what to do with Arian now that he wasn't concentrating so hard on his task, he suddenly became aware that he wasn't alone. The emotions he sensed were powerful, and overlaid by a deep, almost painful tenderness. He turned to see Sloan standing in the doorway, watching him with an expression which, combined with the emotions she projected, was achingly delicious. Arian cooed slightly, clearly catching the spillover. He looked at Sloan for a moment, and couldn't think of any way to express what he felt, so he chose not to.
"How long have you been there?" he asked, instead.
Sloan grinned. "Long enough."
Tom made a face. "You mean you could have rescued me and you just stood there?"
"I didn't want to interrupt. You were doing fine."
"Fine? She almost went headfirst off the side!"
"Okay, granted, but I also see she didn't. Like I said, you did fine, and I wouldn't have missed that for the world. I, um . . . " she blushed a little, then met his eyes with odd shyness. "I can see that if we did end up with any unforseen consequences to the other night, you'd be well equipped to deal with it."
It took him a moment to figure out what she was saying, but when he did, his jaw dropped.
"Sloan?" he began, trying to figure out exactly how to ask what he wanted to ask. Apparently the way he said her name was question enough.
"I'm not saying I want there to be consequences," she said hastily. "I mean, really, the timing isn't good. Not at all. But, if there were consequences, then it might not be as bad as I thought at first. I mean, as long as it was okay with you."
He smiled at her sudden awkwardness, feeling the same burgeoning tenderness in himself that he'd sensed from her. Still holding Arian, he moved to her side, and put his free arm around her, kissing her softly.
"It would be very 'okay' with me. But just so you know, I don't think there will be any consequences. If there were, I should be able to smell the hormonal changes in you by now, and I can't. I think you're safe."
"Oh," she said quietly.
Tom read a surge of disappointment in her, followed by a slightly larger wave of relief. His own feelings mirrored those. It was a relief, but it was also a disappointment. Perhaps someday, when things were less dangerous, less strange, it would be the right time. As if to break the sudden silence between them, Arian squirmed, rattling off a string of nonsense syllables that ended with something like "Ma-ma." Reinforcing that sound was a mental image of Carlie's 'signature' that was astonishingly recognizable. Tom looked at Sloan.
"I think she wants Carlie."
Sloan smiled. "Probably. Most babies want Mommy when they wake up. Come on, we'll take her down. Carlie and I were going to make breakfast, and Lewis probably will need your help in getting things ready to leave."
"Should we wake up Luke and Sorcha?"
She glanced at the crib. "Let them sleep, it'll be easier to just deal with one for now. If Lewis and Carlie want them awake, they can do it. You know that old adage about letting sleeping dogs lie? It applies to babies, too."
Tom chuckled, imagining what might make her say that. While for the most part Lewis' offspring were remarkably well-behaved, he still remembered a least a couple of times he and Sloan had visited Carlie when they had been . . . less than pleasant, to say the least. He could imagine the results if they were awakened when they didn't want to be. He preceded Sloan out of the room and she closed the door behind them. As they approached the stairs, Tom suddenly stopped, and put out a hand to halt Sloan as well.
"Just a minute," he said quietly. "Let them feel we're on our way down."
Sloan nodded, obviously understanding that he'd sensed Carlie and Lewis needed a little time to collect themselves. As he waited, Tom had a little flash of wistfulness at how completely open Lewis and Carlie were to each other. He would never get to experience that with Sloan. Not unless she Changed. He shook off that thought guiltily. He shouldn't allow such speculation to cross his mind even in a moment of wishful thinking. Deliberately he concentrated on occupying Arian instead. Sloan stood and watched him with an amused smile on her face.
"You just going to stand there and look superior?" Tom asked her, a little disgruntled.
She nodded. "I thought that would be good. I like watching you cope."
He shot her a disgusted look, realizing she wasn't going to rescue him this time either. After a little while he sensed that his friends had composed themselves, which was a good thing because Arian was getting bored with his less-than-stellar attempts at diversion. He nodded toward the stairs. "It's okay, we can go down now."
Carlie looked up as Sloan and Tom entered the kitchen, and her eyebrows lifted as she saw that it was Tom, not Sloan, who held Arian. Now she understood the feelings she'd sensed from Sloan, or some of them anyway. They'd been complicated, but she had definitely recognized that sudden wash of tenderness. Arian leaned toward her father, babbling, and Carlie grinned as Tom handed her daughter off to Lewis with rather obvious relief. She looked at Sloan and winked.
"I do so like to see my men barefoot and with child, don't you?"
Sloan blushed, but nodded. "There is something rather . . . satisfying about that."
"The universe in its proper order, and all that," Carlie said, laughing. "Now, baking supplies are in that cabinet there. You get going on the scones, I'll start the sausage and eggs, and the boys can feed Arian."
"Boys?" Lewis said in mock affront.
Carlie grinned. "Boys." She looked at Tom, and nodded. "Definitely boys. So, are you two going to come with us when we leave, or do you have other plans?"
Sloan and Tom looked at each other blankly. Clearly they hadn't considered their options. Tom looked at Lewis, and Carlie could feel his unspoken question. Lewis smiled.
"You would be welcome to stay with us until things settle down for you, or until we figure out what else to do with you."
Tom turned to Sloan, but didn't speak. Carlie was surprised when Sloan responded almost as she would have had she been able to sense his question. Pretty good rapport for a human. Sloan looked from Tom, to Carlie, to Lewis.
"If people are looking for us, wouldn't it be dangerous for you to be with us?"
Lewis shrugged. "It should be safe enough. If anyone is looking for you and Tom they won't expect you to be traveling with family."
Tom's gaze snapped to Lewis' face, and Carlie wondered at the sudden surge of pleasure she felt from him. It seemed an excessive response to such a logical suggestion.
"Family?" Tom asked softly.
Lewis sent a puzzled glance Tom's direction. "Yes. With us."
Tom's pleasure grew stronger, a kind of quiet glow. Suddenly Carlie thought she understood. Tom had no family, not really. For Lewis to invite him to share that intimacy with them had to mean a great deal. She couldn't help mirroring Tom's pleasure, but when she did, both Tom and Lewis looked at her curiously. She just smiled mysteriously. She'd tell Lewis later. Tom didn't need to know that she'd figured it out. He might not even understand it himself, if he was anything like her mate.
"You're sure it would be wise?" Tom asked, looking pointedly at Arian as if to remind Lewis what was at stake.
Lewis nodded, a flash of arrogance in his manner. "Of course. I can keep us safe."
Tom looked at Sloan, who nodded, slowly. "I would like that, if you're both sure it would be all right."
Carlie reached to take her friend's hands in hers. "We wouldn't have offered if we weren't."
Sloan's smile grew a little tremulous, and a suspicious shimmer glazed her eyes, but she squeezed Carlie's hands.
Tom looked at them, then at Lewis. "We accept."
Lewis smiled, and shifted Arian in his arms. "Good. Then let's get to work on breakfast. We have a lot to do, and a long way to travel."
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