Sentinels Book 3
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He saw her in stages.
Pure feral grace…
Surrounded by the chaos of the Pima County Fairgrounds with a complex breed ring and performance dog show cluster in full swing around him, Nick Carter caught only a glimpse of dark, lithe movement as the woman ducked wind chimes at a sheltered display and disappeared around the end of the vendor row. And though his vision was full of pop-up shade shelters and colorful wares, people lingering in the wide aisle with a variety of dogs ranging idly along beside, the desert's seasonal wind gusting and lifting swirls of fine desert grit until it was all one big dance of color and motion—
In truth, in that moment, he saw only one lean woman: swift, bordering on rangy, dressed in black beneath an early winter desert sun. Black fitted vest with no shirt beneath, black crop pants, black leather shoes, tight to her feet. Black hair, short and artfully mussed. Pure bed head. Pure feral grace in her movement, taking her so quickly out of his sight.
He saw it all in that instant—a stranger, on his turf. A shifter, so obvious and yet unknown.
Forget about the troubles within brevis regional, forget about the increasingly problematical stealth amulets being employed by the local Core. Hell, forget about the very concerns that had brought him out here, signs that Fabron Gausto had returned to run amok once again.
Pure feral grace…
Not here. Not without his permission.
He followed her. Around the end of the vendor row, past the main building with its reserved grooming stations, show superintendent's table, and show committee setup. Past the tall wire exercise pens teeming with packs of small breed dogs, all of whom invariably crouched or cowered or rolled over as Nick passed by— and now all of who still lingered that way from the woman's recent passage.
At least he knew he was on the right trail.
Another glimpse of her, nothing more than a black-shod heel, a toned calf—but still his shoulders and nape tightened. It was her, all right.
It wasn't a trespass he could allow to stand. Not with the entire Southwest regional office compromised from within, the aging consul a man who hadn't taken his javelina boar in years, Nick's own handpicked Sentinel echelon team wounded and recovering, and dammit, every sign that they were all still defenseless against the recently employed stealth amulets.
And as incongruous as it seemed, not with the recent incidents at dog shows in the area—dogs stolen, dogs missing. While the local law had chalked up such problems to animal rights activists, Nick had the feeling it was more ominous than that; it smacked of the Core's endless experiments to harvest power that didn't belong to them. With the Core, ominous was never simple, never moral.
And someone always died.
She's only a woman, he tried to tell himself, as a twinge of the absurd touched him—chasing after that lean form here on the busy dog show grounds when he should have been interviewing the breeders he'd come to see. Except…
Not "only a woman" at all. He could recognize the wolf in another as easily as he could see it in a mirror, in his own hoarfrost hair and pale green eyes—but mostly in his manner, as though at any moment the civilization might simply fall away, leaving gleaming teeth and laughing eyes and blood-spattered fur.
And he knew it because of how very often he'd been counseled against it. Blend in, he'd been told in training. We will always know you, but no one else should. And so he'd cultivated the expensive haircuts and the expensive suits and the other trappings of civilization that somehow never seemed to fool anyone.
This woman wouldn't fool anyone, either. She wasn't quite tame—no matter how she might try, whoever she was. And that was the most important point. Whoever she was. Because here in Brevis Southwest, Nick should
know her. Field Sentinels—those who could take another form—were not thick on the ground in any region, and if Nick hadn't actually worked with each of the Sentinels in his region, he nonetheless knew their dossiers.
Not this woman's.
Nor had anyone reported anything unusual from other regions—Sentinels gone missing, Sentinels gone traveling, Sentinels following a trail across borders. She was a complete unknown, an anomaly during restless and uneasy times when Nick could not afford anomalies.
So through the outdoor show rings he followed her, giving wide berth to the obedience rings and the utility dogs who performed exacting feats of scent discrimination and directed retrieving. Farther yet, where the agility dogs barked excitement through their courses, the teeter slamming to the ground and handlers shouting top-speed course corrections with the panicked note that meant oops, too late.
Here, Nick was at home—the very reason he'd come here today, hunting interviews with handlers and owners. Of the brevis Sentinels, he was the one with a pack of retired show dogs. He was the one with co-owned dogs on the circuit, a common arrangement in the world of showing and breeding.
He was the one to whom the affected handlers would speak freely.
To judge by the startled expressions the woman left in her wake, the number of people doing double takes over their shoulders…she not only didn't fit into this world, she hadn't ever learned to glide through it, either.
Just past the agility grounds, he stopped—with nothing beyond but groomed, remote fields bordered by
a man-made tangle of trees and brush. Past that, a midland desert choked thickly with its own native growth—creosote and brittlebush and wild, gorgeous bird-of-paradise, all scattered about with a variety of cactus. But right up close, a field of nothing but informally parked cars, people going to and fro… but none of them startled, all of them chatting happily as they juggled gear and tugged along rolling carrier wheels, their conversation lost in the flapping of the shade canopy setups behind him.
An elusive scent played hide-and-seek on the gusty breeze; Nick whirled.
There she was.
Waiting for him.
Everything that first glimpse had promised—rangy athletic grace even in stillness, only a few feet away and tucked up against the back side of the agility scorekeeper's tent. Her features came as no surprise at all, they so suited the rest of her—short, mussed hair a glossy black, wide-set eyes a deep whiskey gold and tipped up at the corners over the world's most amazing cheekbones, and a wide, serious mouth that wouldn't have to say a word if she only ever let those eyes speak for her.
Only a foot away now, and an unexpectedly swift step brought her closer. She found his gaze, direct and unflinching. "You're following me."
"You meant me to." He said it without thinking, while his mind caught on her voice—lower than he'd expected, smoothly musical, the edges of the words softened by the slightest of unfamiliar burrs, the faintest softening of consonants.
"Did I?" She cocked her head slightly as she examined his words, his demeanor—everything about him.
"You don't belong here," he said, but he kept accusation from his voice. For now. "Were you looking for me?" And on second thought, more warily, "You didn't come here about the missing dogs."
At that she smiled again. Slowly. She shook her head. "No," she said. "Not about the missing dogs." She glanced over to the agility rings, where an overwrought Border Collie flung itself around its own made-up course as the judge signaled fault after fault and the handler laughed helplessly. "They are but infants."
It startled him, as much as he hid it. So a wolf would think, indeed—for compared to a wolf pack's complex social structure and interaction, the domesticated dog led a simplified and limited life. He thought of his own rowdy, cheerful pack of little hounds. "They have their charm."
But her response had been too honest, too true. She's not involved—but she's not one of mine….
Before he could take that train of thought any further, she said, "You knew me," and she said it with some satisfaction.
He found himself smiling—all wolf. "How," he said, "could I not?" And then, narrow-eyed, "Is that why you're here? To see if I would know you? To see if I would follow you?"
"To see if you could," she said.
She's not involved, she's not one of mine….
"There's protocol," he said, the reality of it pressing in. Too many things happening, here in Southwest. "You need to check in with brevis if you're—"
"Run with me," she said, turning her head to a sudden gust of wind, glossy black hair buffeted, eyes flashing gold in the sun. Wild invitation from a wild child grown.
He stopped short. In those eyes—in the lift of her head and the lines of strong, straight shoulders, in rangy legs promising long, ground-eating strides—he suddenly remembered something of what he was.
"Run with me," she said again, looking out over the remaining fields of the fairgrounds to the thick tangle of irrigated wooded borders between the tended green land and the natural desert grit and caliche and sand, filled with thorns and things that bit and stung and knew how to survive their harsh land.
Nick looked out at that land, and he looked at the woman flinging wild in his face, and without even realizing it, he grinned again, dark and just as feral as she. All wolf.
She hadn't expected him to respond to her—not personally, not in any way. She'd expected to fail.
She hadn't expected to respond to him.
She'd seen pictures—flat and uninteresting, without scent or texture. They hadn't told her what she truly needed to know. They hadn't revealed the deeper truth of him.
They hadn't told her he was alpha.
Not alpha as reckoned in the world of cities and people, as among the Sentinels or the Atrum Core. Meaningless, those appellations. But alpha in the truest sense of the word.
So now she'd found him, and now she'd drawn him in, and now she knew she would not fail.
But now, she wanted to.
Not an option.
This open area in which they spoke held little shelter for changing—nothing more than ugly plastic portable bathrooms tucked beside the scorekeeper's tent. Jet wrinkled her nose at them and targeted the informal parking lot beyond—full of oversized vans, small RVs, and big SUVs.
A moment earlier, he'd been amused. But she'd left him with his civilized human thoughts too long, and now he held out a beckoning hand. A commanding hand, as if he had every right to demand her response.
She supposed he did, when it came to that. But she tipped her head just so, and she dropped her jaw in light wolfish amusement… and she backed away. Just a step, then two… hesitating in invitation.
"Later," he said, his voice grown hard in a way that didn't quite match the yearning in his pale green eyes. Humans might have trouble reading the truth of those eyes, but she had no such hindrance. He held firm nonetheless. "You've got questions to answer."
"After. If we run," she told him, jogging a few easy strides away from the hustle-bustle barkbarkbark before hesitating again—knowing just the pattern of tease and entice, though he'd likely not recognize it until too late. For all his wolf, he was far too human to see the subtleness of what she could wield.
"No," he said, though his glance at the spit of woods as it reached through this field showed him to be just a tad more perceptive than she'd thought. A little faster.
And so she moved again, body fluid and beguiling, expression clear. Romp with me.
He shook his head. "I'm not bargaining. I want you out of the field until you're formally cleared."
She couldn't help a laugh. "That is for no man to say. I am my own person." Not strictly true at the moment… but true for so much of her life that it clung to her, curled up inside her and aching to be set free again.
"You," he said, and those light green eyes darkened as he lowered his head slightly, "are in Brevis Southwest. Without permission or notification." Not a good sign, that challenging look, or the set of his shoulders. If he wanted to take her, he could.
Then never let him get close enough. She slipped farther away, a few light-hearted steps toward the beckoning woods. "After," she repeated. She closed her eyes, flung her head back, let flared nostrils scoop in the scents of this man-made wild spot that had outpaced any attempts to keep it tamed. A hundred yards away, the scattered cars defined the edge of the parking area, more sparse than the clustered vehicles around the entrance to the performance grounds they'd just left. The noises and odors of that place had grown more distant, and the woods, the desert beyond… they called all the more loudly.
And besides, she was close enough now.
This human form could run, too.
Run she did, straight for the woods, all smooth easy speed and loping strength, taking advantage of his momentary surprise to gain ground. And once there, she didn't hesitate. She spun to face him even as she toed off her shoes; she tugged impatiently at the buttons of the vest. So confining, these clothes! She skimmed free, rolling them into a quick, practiced ball and standing to face him, wearing only Gausto's necklaces on this lean, naked human form, skin tightening against the shadowed breeze.
He stopped short at the sight of her, eyes gone dark, jaw gone hard. He took a step toward her—
She smiled, showing teeth, and crouched into a tight ball of flesh, reaching within to free the wolf. It swelled from inside her, a rising wave of relief and power, swirling blues and grays that expanded to obscure her from the world and the world from her. But that veil quickly shrank back, showing her the world now through her wolf's eyes. And still she showed her teeth, a laughing curl of lip—a challenge. Come run with me if you dare.
He took it as such—but he took off none of his clothes. All the specially made Sentinel clothes with their warded pockets and natural materials—useless to one whose changes had been instilled by the Core, triggered over and over and over until she learned to do it herself, then trained with powerful aversives to remain human while they taught her more.
His gaze latched on to her even as the glorious flicker of blue lightning gathered—her first sight of a Sentinel's natural change, flashing and strobing until he finally closed his eyes and lifted his head just so—and then the light obscured his form, twining and crawling around him until she had to look away—if only for an instant, and then she drank in the sight of him, well-pleased.