SILVER MERCANT BELIEVED in control. It was what made her so good at what she did—she was never caught by surprise. She prepared for everything. Unfortunately, it was impossible to prepare for the heavily muscled man standing at her apartment door. “How did you get in?” she asked in Russian, making sure to stand front and center in the doorway so he wouldn’t forget this was her territory. Bears had a habit of just pushing everything out of their way. This bear shrugged his broad shoulders where he leaned up against the side of her doorjamb. “I asked nicely,” he replied in the same language. “I live in the most secure building in central Moscow.” Silver stared at that square-jawed face with its honey-dark skin. It wasn’t a tan. Valentin Nikolaev retained the shade in winter, got darker in summer. “And,” she added, “building security is made up of former soldiers who don’t understand the word ‘nice.’” One of those soldiers was a Mercant. No one talked their way past a Mercant.
Except for this man. This wasn’t the first time he’d appeared on her doorstep on the thirty-fourth floor of this building. “I have a special charm,” Valentin responded, his big body blocking out the light and his deep smile settling into familiar grooves in his cheeks, his hair an inky black that was so messy she wondered if he even owned a comb. That hair appeared as if it might have a silken texture, in stark contrast to the harsh angles of his face. No part of him was tense, his body as lazy limbed as a cat’s. She knew he was trying to appear harmless, but she wasn’t an idiot. Despite her offensive and defensive training, the alpha of the StoneWater clan could crush her like a bug, physically speaking. He had too much brawn, too much strength for her to beat him without a weapon. So it was good that Silver’s mind was a ruthless weapon. “Why did you need to see me at seven in the morning?” she asked, because it was clear he wasn’t going to tell her how he kept getting past her security.
He extended a hand on which sat a data crystal. “The clan promised EmNet a breakdown of the small incidents we’ve handled over the past three months.” Those “small incidents” were times when Psy, humans, or non-clan changelings needed assistance in the area controlled by StoneWater—or elsewhere, when members of the bear clan were close enough to help. As the director of the worldwide Emergency Response Network run under the aegis of the Trinity Accord, Silver was the one who coordinated all available resources—and in this part of the world, that included the StoneWater bears. Of course, she had no ability to order them to do anything—trying that on a predatory changeling was an exercise in abject failure. But she could ask. So far, the bears had always come through. The data crystal would tell her how many clan members and/or other resources had been required to manage each instance; it would help her fine-tune her requests in the future. She took the crystal, not bothering to ask why the alpha of the clan had turned up to personally deliver the data. Valentin liked to do things his way.
“Why does Selenka let you get away with breaching her territory?” The BlackEdge wolves had control over this part of Moscow when it came to changeling access. The city was split evenly between the wolf pack and the bear clan, with the rest of their respective territories heading outward from that central dividing line. This apartment building fell in the wolf half. Valentin smiled, night-dark eyes alight in a way she couldn’t describe. “StoneWater and BlackEdge are friends now.” If Silver had felt emotion, she may have made a face of sheer disbelief. The two most powerful packs in Russia had a working relationship and no longer clashed in violent confrontations, but they were not friends. “I see,” she said, refusing to look away from those onyx eyes. Predatory changelings sometimes took a lack of eye contact as submissive behavior, even when interacting with non-changelings. Bears definitely took it as submissive behavior.
They weren’t exactly subtle about it, either. In fact, bears were the least subtle of the changelings she’d met through her work as Kaleb Krychek’s senior aide, and as the head of EmNet. “What do you see, Starlight?” Valentin asked in his deep rumble of a voice that spoke of the animal that lived under his skin. Silver refused to react to the name he insisted on calling her. When she’d pointed out he was being discourteous by not using her actual name, he’d told her to call him her medvezhonok, her teddy bear, that he wouldn’t mind. It was difficult to have a rational conversation with a man who seemed impossible to insult or freeze out. Bears. She’d heard Selenka Durev say that through tightly clenched teeth on more than one occasion. While Silver’s conditioning under the Silence Protocol remained pristine, her mind clear of all emotion, in the time she’d known Valentin, she’d come to understand the wolf alpha’s reaction. “Thank you for the data,” she said to him now.
“Next time, you might wish to consider an invention we in the civilized world call e-mail.” His laugh was so big it filled the air, filled the entire space of her apartment. The thought made no sense, yet it appeared like clockwork when Valentin laughed in her vicinity. She’d told herself multiple times that she worked for the most powerful man in the world; Valentin was only a changeling alpha. Unfortunately, it appeared changeling alphas had their own potent brand of charisma. And this bear alpha had a surfeit of it. “Have you thought about my offer?” he asked, the laughter still in his eyes. “The answer remains the same,” Silver said as a burn spread through her chest. “I do not wish to go have ice cream with you.” “It’s really good ice cream.
” Smile disappearing, Valentin suddenly shifted fully upright from his leaning position against the doorjamb, the size and muscle of him dangerously apparent. “You doing okay?” “Quite fine,” Silver said, even as the burn morphed into a jagged spike. Something was wrong. She had to contact— Her brain shorted out. She was aware of her body beginning to spasm, her lungs gasping for air as her legs crumpled, but she couldn’t get her telepathic “muscles” to work, couldn’t contact her family or Kaleb for an emergency teleport. • • • MOVING far faster than most people expected bear changelings to move, Valentin caught Silver’s slender body before she’d done much more than sway on those ice-pick heels she liked to wear. He knew it wasn’t the heels that were toppling her; Silver was never in any danger on those heels. The woman walked on them like he walked on his “bigfoot-sized” feet, as described by one of his three older sisters. “I’ve got you, Starlight,” he said, scooping her up in his arms and walking into her apartment. He’d been trying to get in for ten long months, ever since he first met Ms.
Silver Mercant. But he’d never expected it to be because she was convulsing in his arms. Placing her on the dark gray of the sofa, he turned her onto her side and gripped her jaw to keep her head from jerking too hard. At least she was breathing, though the sound was ragged. With his other hand, he grabbed his phone, went to call Kaleb Krychek. The viciously powerful telekinetic could get her to help far faster than any ambulance. But Silver’s body was spasming too violently for him to both hold the phone and keep her from hurting herself. Swearing under his breath, he dropped the phone and placed his other hand on her hip, holding her in place. “Not how I wanted to put my hands on you, moyo solnyshko.” He kept talking so she’d know she wasn’t alone, but his blood was chilling with every second that passed.
It was going on too long. Deciding to risk it, he released her hip and, snatching up his phone, managed to make the call. “Silver’s apartment,” he said to the pitiless son of a bitch who was Silver’s boss. “Medical emergency.” He dropped the phone as Silver jerked again. “Hold on, Starlight,” he ordered in his most obnoxiously alpha voice, trying to keep her body from wrenching painfully at the same time. If Silver was going to respond to anything, it would be to the idea that he’d dared give her an order. “You’re tougher than this.” Her eyes, that glorious silver, met his, the pupils huge . right before her body went limp.
Kaleb appeared in the room at the same instant, the Psy male dressed in a flawless black-on-black suit. “What happened?” he asked, his voice as cold as midnight on the steppes. “Get her to a doctor,” Valentin growled, the sound coming from the human male’s vocal cords but carrying the bear’s rage. “Tell them it was poison.” Kaleb was smart enough not to waste time questioning him. He simply teleported out, taking Silver with him. Teeth gritted at the fact she was out of his sight, Valentin got up and, going into Silver’s kitchen, began to pull out anything that could be food. Psy had strange ideas of food—meal bars and nutrient mixes. The only surprise in Silver’s cupboard was a block of fine dark chocolate. Wondering if he’d discovered a secret about the most fascinating woman he’d ever met, a secret he could use to sneak past her defenses—no, he had no shame whatsoever when it came to Silver Mercant—he turned over the block and found a small card still attached to it.
The writing was in English. It said: Thank you for your assistance, Ms. Mercant. I hope you enjoy this small taste of our family business. ~Rico Cavalier His bear rumbled inside his chest. This was the kind of gift a man gave a woman he was interested in—but it looked like this Rico had struck out if the chocolate was sitting in the back of what passed for Silver’s pantry. Good. Otherwise, I’d have had to pound the fool into dust. The only one courting Starlight was going to be Valentin. Having collected all possible food items, including some bland-looking “cake” from the cooler that was probably a nutrient-dense protein supplement, he began to go through them.
Changelings had the sharpest noses of the three races. Bears had the sharpest noses among changelings. Nothing would escape him now that he’d pinpointed the poisonous scent from the millions of others in the air at any one time: the exemplar had come from Silver, her body screaming a warning to his senses as the poison went active. “Hungry, Alpha Nikolaev?” He didn’t start at Krychek’s midnight voice, having scented the cardinal telekinetic’s return to the room. Thankfully for his nose, Kaleb didn’t have the astringent metallic scent that some Psy did, the ones who were so deep in the emotionless regime they called Silence that Valentin didn’t think anything would get them out. It was as if they’d cut out their hearts and souls. Silver was pure ice, but she didn’t have that metallic scent, either. It gave him hope. As did the faint touch of fire he kept picking up around her, a hidden sunshine that flickered against his skin. Valentin was determined to seduce Silver’s hidden wildness out into the light.
Who better than an uncivilized bear, after all? “How is she?” he asked, looking Krychek in the eye. The telekinetic’s gaze was the eerie white stars on black that denoted the strongest among the Psy race, difficult to read even if it hadn’t been Kaleb Krychek—a man Valentin respected for his relentless will but mostly for his unexpected capacity for loyalty. StoneWater did its research on possible business partners. Valentin, a young second to Zoya at the time Krychek first appeared on StoneWater’s radar, was the one who’d dug into the Psy male. And what he’d discovered about Krychek was that if you didn’t betray him, he wouldn’t betray you. Valentin could work with a man like that. Especially since Krychek had had the good sense to employ Silver. The words the telekinetic spoke were toneless. “The medics are working on stabilizing her.” Valentin’s gut clenched.
A deep rumbling building in his chest, he held out a barely used jar of nutrient mix. “This has the same toxic scent as what I scented on her—get it tested. I’m going to finish checking the other items.” Kaleb left at once, no doubt aware that, to treat Silver effectively, the medics needed to know the type of poison she’d ingested. Because while Valentin could tell something was toxic, he couldn’t separate out individual poisonous scents—not when he’d never made it a point to learn those gradations. He saw the half-full glass on the counter, realized he’d interrupted Silver at breakfast. He didn’t need to lift the glass to his nose to scent the toxins swirling in the coffee-colored liquid. If he’d been here, he would’ve smashed that glass out of her hand before a drop touched her lips. Jaw grinding, he handed the glass to Krychek when the other man returned. The third time Krychek came back, Valentin had found a second contaminated jar of nutrient mix.
“It was the third from the front on the right-hand side,” he said, knowing the location of the poisoned jars might be important. “The nutrient bars were clean.” He’d ruthlessly opened each and every packet, exposing them to the air and to his nose. “Silver’s going to be mad I trashed her kitchen.” Kaleb took the jar, examined the label, then teleported out with it. When he returned, he said, “That was ordinary nutrient mix available at any Psy grocer.” “You thinking product tampering?” “It’s a possibility—those of my race are not universally liked.” That was a vast understatement. Many of the Psy might be attempting to regain their emotions after more than a hundred years of training themselves to feel nothing, but their previous rulers had done massive damage, killed and tortured and created a deep vein of ill will. Both humans and changelings had long memories.
“The other option is an assassination attempt.” Krychek’s cardinal eyes took in the mess Valentin had made of the food. “I trust in your sense of smell, but I’ll get everything tested regardless.” Valentin felt no insult. This wasn’t about pride. It was about Silver’s life. “Do it. Now tell me where she is.” Kaleb slipped his hands into the pockets of his pants. “Silver hasn’t mentioned a friendship.
” “I’m working on it.” Had been doing so since the day he’d walked scowling into a meeting and come face-to-face with a woman who made him think of hidden fire and cold, distant, searingly brilliant starlight. And, let’s be honest: skin privileges. Naked skin privileges. Wild-monkey skin privileges. He couldn’t be around Silver and not have his body react. Her own body, it was slender, but with all the right curves. And she was tough, tough as a female bear out for blood. Never once had she backed down against his deliberate provocation. His bear liked that.
A lot. Enough to throw her over his shoulder and carry her off to his lair if only she wouldn’t fry his brains for daring. He was tempted to chance it anyway. He had a hard head, could probably take it so long as she wasn’t trying to kill him. That mind of hers . He’d never met its like. Silver Mercant forgot nothing, and she had a steely presence that made even rowdy bears sit up and take notice. Woman like that, she’d make one hell of a mate. Too bad she refused to even consider the idea: Silver wasn’t budging on the whole emotionless Silence thing. “My people chose Silence for a reason,” she’d said to him three visits earlier.
“While parts of that reasoning have proven false enough to topple Silence for many, other parts still apply. I am and always will be Silent. That means I will never be ready to ‘run off ’ and experience ‘shenanigans’ with you.” No matter. Valentin had a plan. Because she damn well was going to survive. “Don’t even try to stop me from seeing her, Krychek,” he said to the cardinal, who still hadn’t spilled Silver’s location. “I’m bigger and meaner than you.” Krychek raised an eyebrow. “Bigger, yes.
Meaner? Let’s leave that an open question. However, since she’s alive because of you, I think you can be trusted with her whereabouts.” He told Valentin the name of the hospital. It happened to be a short ten-minute run from here. Normally, Valentin would’ve covered that distance without hesitation—his bear would’ve barely stretched out by the time he reached the hospital. He could do vehicles, but he didn’t really like them. They were all too damn small as far as he was concerned. But this wasn’t a normal day. “Can I hitch a ride?” The other man didn’t say anything, but less than a second later, Valentin found himself standing in an antiseptic white corridor, the floor beneath his feet a chilly gray-blue. The chairs on one side were attached to the wall, the seat cushions darkest navy.
On the right of the chairs was a door inset with a small square of glass. Beyond that glass lay an operating theatre where white-garbed doctors and nurses worked with frantic efficiency to stabilize Silver. He couldn’t see her, but regardless of the powerful hospital smells in the air, sharp and biting, he could scent the ice-cold starlight and secret fire of her. “I thought you’d take her to a private clinic.” This public hospital was an excellent one, but Silver was critical to the fragile balance of their fractured world—and Krychek could teleport anywhere in the blink of an eye. “The lead doctor working on her is one of the world’s foremost specialists in toxins and poisons and their impact on the Psy body.” “You download that information from the psychic network you’re all part of?” Krychek nodded. “Useful.” Valentin couldn’t imagine a life in which his mind was connected to a limitless vastness that included millions of strangers, but as a bear whose clan was his heartbeat, he could understand it. “You didn’t leave her here alone.
” Krychek had been delayed returning to him the first time around. Long enough to bring in someone to watch over Silver. “No, he didn’t.” The woman who’d spoken had just walked over from where she’d been getting a glass of water not far down the corridor. Her language of choice was English, and she had a scent that was almost no scent. But to a bear, everyone had a scent, and she hadn’t quite managed to erase every thread of hers. The subtle memory of soap, the natural body scent that was uniquely hers, a touch of roses. He didn’t have to ask her identity; this woman was Silver in fifty years. Her hair pure white and her eyes the same as his Starlight’s, her facial bones fine, she was clearly a Mercant. And, if the rumors Valentin’s third-eldest sister had heard were true, then she was probably the Mercant.
He took a chance. “Grandmother Mercant,” he said in the same language she’d used, inclining his head slightly in acknowledgment of another alpha. Silver’s grandmother didn’t display any surprise at his greeting, so regal, she clearly took it as her due that she’d be recognized—this despite the fact the head of the Mercant family preferred to stay firmly out of the limelight. Yes, the Mercant women were as tough as steel. More than tough enough to handle bears. “You have me at a disadvantage,” was her polite but in no way warm response. “Valentin Nikolaev,” he said. “Alpha of the StoneWater clan.” “He was with Silver when she collapsed.” Grandmother Mercant’s eyes bored into Valentin’s on the heels of Krychek’s words.
“If my granddaughter survives, it’ll be because of your quick actions.” She shifted her attention to the cardinal who was the third point in their triangle. “Any response from the lab?” “No,” Krychek said, then paused. “I have the report. I’m sending it through.” Beyond the square of glass, Valentin saw a doctor lift up her head. She nodded once toward the window to acknowledge the telepathic message before beginning to issue orders to her staff. Minutes turned to an hour, more. Still, they waited.