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Her feet hurt, but not half as much as her face.
Saskia Arcos stood in front of the elegant marble fireplace, flanked by three imposing male figures, and wished desperately that this quote-unquote happiest moment of her life had included a couple of aspirin. Or maybe a morphine drip.
"We would like to thank all of you for joining us tonight for this wonderful occasion," her father boomed over the low buzz of conversation and curiosity, holding his champagne glass up in front of him like he'd just seized the banner in a well-fought round of Capture the Flag. Though not a large man, her father knew how to command a room. Imposing, after all, had relatively little to do with size, as two out of the three demonstrated clearly. "Joy like this is meant to be shared with friends and community. We are grateful to have each and every one of you with us tonight to bear witness as we join our families and our futures. To the happy couple!"
"The happy couple!"
The toast echoed through the high-ceilinged ballroom, the rumble of hundreds of voices nearly knocking Saskia back into the fire. Her own champagne sloshed in her glass as she swayed precariously. A hard-muscled arm slipped around her waist to steady her.
The quiet murmur drifted down to her, and Saskia looked up reflexively, straight into the gaze she'd been avoiding all evening. Green eyes stared down at her, their expression unreadable in spite of the flecks of molten gold sparkling in their depths. Even in the well-lit ballroom, Nicolas Preda's face gave away none of his feelings. Assuming, of course, that he had any.
"I can only echo Gregor's words and hope that this union proves to be a long and fruitful one." Stefan Preda's deep voice had hoarsened slightly with age, but the steel in it matched the resolve Saskia could see behind his son's calm mask. Neither man was one to trifle with. The son stood a head taller than the father, his shoulders wider and chest broader, but the pattern card shone through in the set of the jaw, the tilt of the head, and the glitter in the deep green eyes.
She suppressed a shiver.
"To Nicolas and Saskia!" Stefan proclaimed.
Once again, the room repeated the words and raised their glasses to the couple in front of them.
"I think that's our cue."
Confused as she was, Saskia knew better than to frown in front of her father's five hundred guests, but she felt her smile freeze when the towering figure beside her shifted. His words penetrated her social fog a split second before warm male lips settled firmly over hers.
Nicolas was kissing her.
The stunning thought took longer than the kiss itself. Before she had time to register the shock, the pressure eased and Nicolas lifted his head, leaving only a shadow of warmth behind. He turned back to face the assembled company with a grin of cocky male satisfaction. The arm he'd used to steady Saskia remained curved possessively around her back. To the guests, she supposed they looked exactly like a young, happy, newly engaged couple ought to look—him, tall and handsome in his custom tailored tuxedo, with his shiny Italian shoes and his playboy good looks; her, petite and delicate, in her apricot and gold gown with topazes dangling from her ears and an enormous diamond glinting on her finger. Tomorrow morning, she had no doubt she would see their photo on page one of the society section. She could picture the caption now: Nicolas Preda (center), CEO of Preda Industries, Inc., and Saskia Arcos, daughter of wealthy European financier Gregor Arcos (l), pose with their fathers, Arcos and Stefan Preda (r), at their engagement party at the Royal Hotel, Preda's newly acquired Manhattan property.
Readers across the city would ooh and ah over the details of the extravagant party and the famous and infamous guests. Everyone who was anyone in Manhattan had been invited to the festivities, from the mayor, to the heads of numerous Fortune 500 companies, to the leaders of Other society. The head of the Council of Others had dined at the head table along with the guests of honor and their families. Saskia had barely managed a bite of tender lobster, too distracted by the tension flowing just beneath the veneer of good-natured civility. She knew exactly what her father and Mr. Preda had hoped to achieve tonight, but that hadn't done much to calm her nervous stomach. All it had really done was make her hyper-aware of her own part in the performance, one in which she smiled constantly, nodded gracefully, laughed becomingly, and tried desperately to look comfortable beside the fiancé she hadn't seen in approximately eighteen years. After all, her job tonight was to convince everyone who saw her that two of the oldest and most powerful of the aristocratic Tiguri families had been firmly and permanently united as they moved into the future from their new foothold in North America. And she had to do it without uttering a word about the families' relocation from Europe, without looking anything other than bowled over by love and good fortune, and without so much as breaking a sweat.
Next to all that, the challenge of keeping a roomful of humans mixing in blissful ignorance with a company teeming with supernatural Others felt like a piece of cake. That part Saskia could have handled in her sleep. It was Nicolas she couldn't handle. She couldn't even think of where she could start that little project, and she refused to think about the fact that it was one she'd be stuck working on for the next seventy or eighty years. Thoughts like that were not going to help settle her stomach.
Neither was the feel of Nicolas's hand sliding from her waist to the small of her back as he turned her toward the enormous double doors at the end of the ballroom floor.
"Come on," he murmured, leaning close to her ear, his breath stirring the strands of strawberry blonde hair that had managed to escape their elegant French twist. "We've got to make nice with everyone leaving. Almost done."
Saskia let him steer her through the crowd to take up their positions close to the exit. He deposited their drinks with a waiter along the way, and she found herself simply drifting along in Nicolas's wake as he stationed himself alongside the flow of traffic and began to share chuckles and hearty handshakes with their departing guests. The man looked like a politician, all charm and smooth words and wide smiles. With his expertly cut clothes and stylishly cut hair—a mix of browns and golds that defied a color label—Saskia couldn't decide if that image frightened or reassured her.
Most of the guests seemed content to let Saskia get away with an exhausted smile and a murmured "thank you for coming," and she felt grateful for that. She probably looked about as tired as she felt. They left her with a press of the hand and another round of congratulations, telling her what a lucky man Nicolas was to have her, or how she must be delighted to have landed such a catch as him. Of course, she always nodded and agreed, no matter how ridiculous they sounded. What was she supposed to do? Tell them that it was actually her father who had landed her fiancé, not her? That would go over nicely. So she continued to smile and nod and murmur and promised herself that when she finally crawled into bed tonight she would do it accompanied by a dose of painkillers so large, her liver would be begging for mercy all night long.
"Thank you very much for inviting me to join the festivities," a voice rumbled, jerking Saskia's mind back into focus. "The Council, of course, was pleased to be included, but I myself would have regretted had I missed being here."
Saskia blinked and lifted her chin until she could look up into a pair of startlingly golden eyes fixed in a dark, handsome face. The eyes surprised her. She'd never expected to see them so close to her own, let alone feel them burning into her with such focused intensity. After all, she might recognize the face of Rafael De Santos on sight, but considering how warily the Council of Others viewed those of her kind, she hadn't exactly pictured having a one-on-one conversation with him.
"Ah, y-y-es," she stammered, searching blindly for the poise she'd had hammered into her by tutors and nannies practically since birth. "Of course we're delighted you could come, Mr. De Santos. I hope this is only the first of many occasions when we will have the chance to get to know each other."
She offered the tall, sinfully handsome man a warm smile, the kind she'd been instructed to practice in her mirror until it looked completely natural and unstudied, and blinked when he returned it with one that glinted with feral power. Instinctively she shifted backward, and her shoulders brushed against her fiancé's jacket.
Nicolas looked down at her, his hand shifting to her hip to steady her. His glance flicked from her face to the man standing in front of her and Saskia could see his gaze harden.
The Felix head of the Council nodded briefly. "Preda. I was just telling your lovely fiancée how delighted I am to have gotten the chance to meet her like this." His golden eyes sparked as he ran them over her creamy bare shoulders and the swell of her breasts at her neckline. "However sadly late it might be."
Saskia gave a start. Was Rafael De Santos flirting with her?
The hand on her hip tightened.
"We're glad you came to wish us well," Nicolas growled. There was no other word for the low warning that rumbled through the words. "My mate and I appreciate the support of the Council, especially considering we're both new to the city."
That last part wasn't precisely true. Both the Arcos and Preda families had kept houses in Manhattan for years and had visited the city frequently; they just hadn't made their primary homes in New York. Now, however, things were changing. Saskia and Nicolas's engagement was just one more symbol of that shifting dynamic. His terse tone symbolized that other things, however, never changed.
De Santos shifted his gaze to Nicolas, and the liquid gold cooled and hardened. "The Council has never made a habit of coming between couples intent on marriage. Of course we support any decision that brings you both personal happiness."
And there it was. Saskia sighed inwardly. Without saying anything but the most polite of truths, her fiancé and the head of the Council had managed to each draw a line in the sand. The heaviness of the subtext weighed down on her like Atlas's globe. Maybe she should check exactly how much aspirin constituted an overdose.
"You're very kind," she jumped in, feeling the hand at her hip tighten and Nicolas's body draw up with tension. This was not the place for a scene, and since she'd been well trained to prevent such awkwardness, Saskia stepped in to soothe and deflect. It was reflex. Or maybe instinct. "Nicolas and I are delighted to have been able to share our big night with such gracious company."
She could see the awareness of her tactic in De Santos's eyes, could feel the way her fiancé's stiff carriage indicated a struggle over whether or not to call her on her interference, but damn it, she would not be intimidated. Not tonight. This was a party. It was not the time to rehash old enmity or to lay the foundation for future generations of mistrust and hostility. They could get back to all that in the morning.
Offering a determinedly steady hand, Saskia smiled up at the head of the Council and wordlessly dared him to contradict her implied dismissal. She saw a flash of amusement behind his bland expression and held her breath for a moment.
De Santos enveloped her hand in his much larger one and raised it to his lips. "I find myself unexpectedly delighted as well, my dear. I would not have missed this evening for the world."
His lips brushed the backs of her fingers, and Saskia blinked. In spite of years of instruction in etiquette and social rituals, in spite of finishing school in Switzerland and one memorable tea at Windsor Castle, she'd never had any man kiss her hand before. It should have looked and felt ridiculous, but Rafael De Santos carried it off as if the custom hadn't died a century before. On him, the courtly act seemed completely natural, even expected.
Before Saskia could decide how to respond, the Felix had released her hand with a gentle squeeze, nodded briefly to Nicolas, and blended back into the crowd moving through the exit. Blowing out a discreet breath, she struggled to regain her equilibrium. Rafael De Santos was a force of nature. She'd heard stories about his potent charm and seductive wiles, but she'd never expected to experience them for herself. No wonder women supposedly dropped at his feet like autumn leaves. Saskia had zero interest in the man yet even she had felt a brief tug of fascinated attraction. The man should come with a warning label.
Nicolas shifted behind her, dragging her attention back to the matter at hand. They still had a couple hundred guests to farewell, and if she wanted to make it home to her bed and her painkillers before lunchtime tomorrow she needed to keep herself focused. Automatically she tilted her head back to offer her fiancé a reassuring smile, but his expression made her falter. His green eyes looked cool and distant and flicked immediately away from her. His hand at her hip withdrew, and his body canted subtly away as he murmured something polite and benign to the senior partner of a well-respected and ancient law firm. She couldn't quite shake the feeling that she'd been simultaneously rebuked and dismissed.
But for what?
"Great party. Thanks for the invite. Good luck, and all that."
This time, the voice that snapped her back to awareness was female, unaccented, and slightly ill at ease. Instinct and training pressed Saskia to fix that at once.
"We're so happy you were able to join us," she said, infusing her smile with extra warmth. She didn't immediately recognize the woman before her, but something about the olive-skinned brunette tickled at the edge of Saskia's subconscious. She usually excelled at remembering names and faces. "Please tell me you enjoyed yourself at least a little."
The woman grinned in spite of her discomfort. "Well, the champagne was first rate, and those stuffed mushroom thingies they passed around before dinner tasted like an orgasm on a plate, so that's something. More than I can usually expect from a work gig."
Work. Ah, yes. This was the reporter from the Chronicle. Father had insisted she be invited, even though she didn't normally write a social column. Something about a connection with both the Council and the Faerie Summer Court. Saskia eyed her with renewed interest.
"I find that adding in a bit of pleasure tends to make work both more enjoyable and more successful, Ms. D'Alessandro," she said, pulling the name out of her mental database and smiling. "With luck, you'll find that to be equally true."
"‘Corinne,' please," the woman said, rolling her eyes. "Don't make me look around this crowd for my mother. I can only take so much trauma."
Saskia laughed, genuinely. She liked people with a sense of humor. "Corinne, then. Can I tell myself you had a good time? Please? It will help me sleep, you know. I'd hate to think anyone found my engagement dinner a chore."
Something flashed behind Corinne's eyes, but it happened so fast, Saskia barely had time to recognize it, let alone decide what it meant.
"It was a great dinner," Corinne said. "Totally yummy. And I should say congratulations. I hope everything works out for you guys."
It wasn't difficult to read the genuine sentiment behind the woman's words, nor the doubt that laced them. It wasn't anything Saskia hadn't encountered before. Very few people anymore understood the reasoning behind arranged marriages, and almost no one in America did. It might be the way the Tiguri had always done things, but Americans had deserted the practice along with horse-drawn plows and whale oil lanterns.
She smiled. "Thank you. I assure you, everything will be perfect." Impulsively she reached out and squeezed the reporter's hand. "Believe me."
Brown eyes locked with her own and studied her for a long minute. When she spoke again, Corinne was frowning and smiling at the same time. Her brows still drew together, but her mouth had curved into a wry expression. "You know, I think you really mean that." She paused, appeared to debate something with herself, then reached into her small evening clutch and pulled out a cream-colored business card. "I have to admit, I'm fascinated by your whole story. If you wouldn't mind, I'd love to pick your brain about it at some point. My office number is on there. Maybe we could have a drink sometime and talk?"
Saskia tucked the card into her own bag. She couldn't explain why, but she liked this reporter right away. Saskia wouldn't mind meeting her for a drink sometime, maybe indulging in some girl talk. After all, Saskia had spent most of the last ten years in Europe and all her close friends were still there. It would be nice to make friends with someone more available.
"If you're hoping alcohol will steal away my inhibitions and loosen my tongue, you'd be absolutely right." Saskia grinned. "I have a pretty low tolerance. But I'm afraid it won't help you discover anything scandalous about my engagement. There's nothing so exciting to it. We're just like any other couple."
Corinne snorted. "Like any Other couple, maybe."
Saskia felt her eyes widen and she scanned the crowd around them reflexively, searching for anyone who might have overheard her but perhaps shouldn't. She knew the Other community in New York still felt very strongly about protecting their secrecy from the humans. In a mixed crowd like this one, the challenge of remaining undiscovered tended to require extra vigilance.
"Oh, don't worry," Corinne said, drawing Saskia's focus back to her. "I'm part of one of those couples myself. My fiancé is … special. I wouldn't let the cat out of the bag, even if he did manage to wriggle out of coming with me tonight."
Saskia let herself relax. "Well, then, you shouldn't have any questions about me. It's all perfectly ordinary, I assure you."
The reporter looked from Saskia, to her fiancé, currently schmoozing with her father and the head of a major movie studio, to her future father-in-law, currently glaring at the reporter, and back to Saskia. "Hm. Keep telling yourself that, toots." She stepped back and raised a hand in farewell. "Anyway, call me sometime. Even if I can't pick your brain. You're new in town. I can show you around, introduce you to some of my friends. We all have … similar interests, you might say."
Saskia smiled in agreement and Corinne moved away, threading purposefully through the crowd and out toward the hotel lobby. Saskia watched her go for a second, then turned back toward her other guests. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Stefan still frowning, but now the expression was aimed at her.
What was his problem? she wondered. She'd never gotten the impression that Stefan Preda liked her very much, despite the fact that he'd pursued the engagement between her and his son with as much assiduousness as her own father. She knew the former head of his streak wanted intensely for the Preda and Arcos clans to be united. As they were two of the oldest and highest-ranking families of tiger shifters left in the world, the move would solidify their power and shove the other four remaining clans firmly onto a lower tier of the rigid Tiguri hierarchy. For it to happen, Nicolas Preda had to marry her. It was that simple.
Pushing the question of her future father-in-law's mood to the back of her mind, Saskia mustered up another social smile and got back to the task at hand. Time to show the crème of New York society exactly how happy she was to have landed herself a man such as Nicolas Preda.
* * *
Nic realized early on that the party was going to last until approximately the end of time. The invitations had requested the guests arrive at 7:00 P.M. By 7:45 he had had his fill of glad-handing politicians and schmoozing executives, and by 8:00 he'd had enough of his future father-in-law. Gregor Arcos was a highly intelligent, crafty old sonofabitch, a man who had inherited his place in the world but who hadn't been afraid to fight to keep it, and to fight dirty if he had to. That was a quality Nic could respect. What drove him crazy was the way Arcos seemed to believe that by getting Nic to marry his daughter he'd somehow acquired the power to control or guide Nic's actions. Nic would have to find a way to disabuse the man of that notion, and quickly, without sparking a full-fledged battle of wills. Nic had no doubt he'd win—eventually—but he wasn't prepared to risk the collateral damage. Not unless he had no other choice.
By 8:15, his own father had appeared on Nic's shit list. Stefan Preda knew better than to let his son see his attempts at manipulation, but that didn't mean he wasn't working behind the scenes with all the determination and finesse of a master puppeteer. He might realize laying a hand on Nic's strings was a bad move, but he showed no compunction about tugging Gregor's here and there, or about doing his best to gather Saskia's strings into his controlling grasp.
Nic couldn't decide how he felt about that. Intellectually, he knew his father's end goal was nearly the same as his own—to carve out a secure and significant niche for the Preda and Arcos streaks in Manhattan and to ensure the future of the Tiguri in local Other society, including winning a place on the Council of Others. The problem was that Nic's social ambitions ended there. He reserved his other plans for his business, the family company he'd recently taken over from his father. Maybe that was part of the problem. Maybe now Stefan had too much time on his hands and the elder Preda was out to control Saskia from a sense of boredom or uselessness.
Maybe that was it, but either way, Nic found himself less than pleased over the way his father had treated his fiancée over the course of the evening, which was odd. He hadn't expected to particularly care one way or the other. Oh, he would never tolerate anyone treating the woman with disrespect; to do so would be to show disrespect to Nic and his family, as well; that wasn't the sort of thing a ther—a dominant male—would countenance. Still, Nic hadn't expected the possessive instincts the small female seemed to call up within him. At least, not at this point in the relationship. Later, after they were mated in truth, he figured thousands of years of species memory would likely make him damned possessive where his woman was concerned. But now? They barely knew each other. It was too early for the beast inside him to be growling every time someone so much as said boo to Saskia Arcos.
Nic had struggled with the feeling all night. First, he noticed it when he and his father had gathered with the Arcoses before the party began. The families had known each other for generations, so the regular meet-and-greet introductions hadn't been necessary. Nic had shaken hands with Gregor and his wife, Victoria, formally slid his ring on Saskia's slender finger, and offered to pour everyone drinks. Fifteen minutes of polite chitchat and the party could get rolling.
Something unexpected had happened, though, the minute Nic slipped the diamond and platinum engagement ring past his fiancée's knuckle. Although he hadn't seen Saskia Arcos in almost twenty years, he hadn't had any trouble recognizing her. With her pale, creamy skin, red-tinged blond hair, and huge blue eyes, she still bore a striking resemblance to the eight-year-old waif who had dogged his footsteps throughout the entire week he and his parents had spent at Shadelea, the Arcos summer home in the English midlands.
While their fathers had taken the first steps in negotiating an alliance between the two streaks, Nic had roamed restlessly around the aristocratic old estate, stretching his legs on long walks, tiring himself out with neck-and-nothing gallops over the hills, and relishing the UK drinking-age laws down at the village pub. Little Saskia had even followed him into that dim, smoky building, settling herself quietly in a corner with a coloring book and a cup of tea, keeping her hands busy even as her attention remained entirely focused on the baffled nineteen-year-old Nic. No one at the pub had commented on her presence, least of all Nic. He'd been deadly frightened that if he acknowledged her presence he would somehow be obliged to take care of her, and he'd had no desire at the time to take care of anyone. He'd still been learning to take care of himself.
Saskia had never asked anything of him, though. Not during that whole vacation. She'd literally become his shadow, following him everywhere, staying a few steps behind him, observing everything but never speaking. It was odd how she'd never said a word to him and yet still managed to drag him through a minefield of unexpected emotions. At first he'd found her dogged attention amusing, maybe a little flattering, but like any nineteen-year-old boy, his amusement had quickly turned to annoyance. He'd tried a million tricks to get rid of her, but even the few times he'd managed to give her the slip she'd always managed to pop back up within an hour or two, still silent but ever more determined. When he'd run out of ideas for getting rid of her that didn't cross the line into outright cruelty or physical harm, he'd allowed his annoyance to shift into bafflement and then resignation. He still hadn't spoken to the girl, nor she to him, but he'd grown accustomed to her presence just behind him, and when he and his parents had finally left Shadelea he'd felt somehow naked and exposed without her at his back.
Funny, but he'd forgotten all about that strange feeling until tonight, when the grown-up version of that little girl had once again become glued to his side like a shadow. Her presence brought those memories rushing back, but things felt different now. Saskia Arcos wasn't eight years old anymore. She was twenty-eight and very clearly a woman full grown. Her skin and hair and eyes might look just as he'd remembered, but the slight, gangly frame of the girl he had ignored had lengthened, matured, and filled out in some very interesting places, each of them showcased in the strapless gown that floated around her every time she moved. The muted shades of orange and gold made her skin glow and her hair burn and the sweet sprinkling of freckles dusting her shoulders looked like a fine coating of cinnamon sugar. Nic couldn't wait to lean down and taste them.
The only thing about that thought that didn't sit comfortably with him was that he knew for a fact he wasn't the only man in the room imagining the honey-cream flavor of her skin. The head of the Council of Others had made little effort to hide some very similar thoughts of his own.
Nic scowled and scanned the crowd to make sure the good-looking bastard had managed to find the exit. If not, Nic would happily escort him to it. Now that their engagement was official, by Tiguri custom Saskia belonged to Nic, completely. If the Felix De Santos didn't learn to keep his salacious thoughts to himself, Nic would have every right and take every pleasure in pointing out the other man's bad manners. With his fists. And maybe his claws. Possibly fangs. Once the tiger form broke free, no one could predict what it would take to satisfy the beast's need to assert its dominance.
And those were the kinds of thoughts Nic most needed to get ahold of, he reminded himself. He forced a deep breath in and blew it out slowly. He shifted next to his fiancée until he could feel the warmth of her skin soaking through the fabric of his tuxedo jacket. The reminder of her presence beside him soothed his inner tiger and helped him regain control. He knew how little provocation it would take for the Council of Others to disregard the unspoken and fragile truce that currently existed between them and the Tiguri. After centuries of the absence of tiger shifters from most of America, no one knew quite what to make of the Arcos and Preda streaks' decision to relocate both their businesses and their families to New York. It had made most of the Council a bit … edgy. If Nic wanted to keep the peace, he needed to keep a tight rein on his more primitive instincts, instincts his fiancée seemed to drag to the surface with unexpected ease.
"Well, I'd certainly call that a success," Gregor Arcos crowed, rubbing his hands together with trenchant glee. "Very nicely done, my boy, if I do say so myself."
Nic skimmed his gaze over the last few stragglers clustered in small groups in the hall outside of the emptied ballroom before turning to his future father-in-law. Behind them, catering staff had already begun dismantling the elaborate decorations. "The staff did an excellent job. I'm very pleased."
"As am I," his father said. Stefan nodded to Nic and Saskia, his patrician features looking almost relaxed after the well-received celebration. "You behaved just as I could have wished, Saskia. You were a credit to our family."
Beside him, Saskia stirred, her shoulders straightening as she nodded at the elder Preda. "Thank you, Mr. Preda. I certainly wouldn't want to disappoint anyone at such a lovely event."
"Your father and I were very proud, Saskia," Victoria Arcos declared. Nic had almost forgotten about Saskia's mother. The woman tended to blend into the shadows behind her charismatic mate. "We only hope you'll continue to demonstrate your value to your new family."
Saskia merely smiled and inclined her head. Nic raised an eyebrow. Her family made it sound like they thought of her as a well-trained spaniel or maybe a schoolgirl who'd just navigated her first formal tea party at the age of seven when Nic knew very well that his fiancée had recently celebrated her twenty-eighth birthday. No one could doubt she was full grown, just as no one who really looked at her would doubt she would always behave with the grace and graciousness of a princess. He knew the practice of arranged matches like theirs was considered old fashioned—by everyone but the Tiguri, who considered the term "old fashioned" to be a badge of honor among their kind—but her family's words made him feel like he'd just been transported into a BBC costume drama.
Slipping his arm around her waist, Nic drew his fiancée against his side and smiled at her parents. "My mate could never do anything less, I'm sure," he said firmly.
"Ah, but she's not your mate yet." Her father chuckled, winking at them. "And I'm sure that's something you'd like to get straight to work on, eh? You kids should go on home now. I had Saskia's things sent over this morning. She should be all settled in by now."
"Thank you, Papa." Saskia leaned forward to brush a kiss against her father's cheek, then settled right back at Nic's side. The surge of satisfaction he felt at the action surprised him. "I'll give you and Mother a call in the morning."
"Not too early, I hope," Gregor boomed, clearly amusing himself and earning a quelling look from his wife. "It takes effort to seal a mating. You wouldn't want anyone to think you weren't dedicated to the task, now would you."
Saskia colored at her father's crude words, and Nic fought back the urge to snarl. Everyone there knew that by Tiguri custom an engagement merely signaled an intent to form a mate bond and that the union wouldn't be sealed, wouldn't become the equivalent of a marriage, until Saskia became pregnant. Just like the bond wouldn't be considered permanent until she gave birth to a healthy cub. No one had to point that out, especially not so crudely. The unexpected protectiveness Nic felt toward Saskia made him want to strangle her father for embarrassing her in front of both their families.
Fortunately, his father stepped in before Nic could act on his anger.
"Yes, the young couple should be given their privacy," Stefan declared, his voice firm and only slightly tightened in irritation. "I know my son has made every effort to prepare his den for his new mate. He should take her home and show her."
"Gladly." Nic smiled down at Saskia, forcing thoughts of her parents out of his head. She made a much more pleasant thing to focus on. "Shall we?"
She nodded on a deep exhalation, and for the first time Nic noticed the faint shadows of exhaustion under her bright blue eyes. He was feeling pretty tired himself. He should have realized how exhausting the past week since the betrothal had been for his fiancée.
"Yes," she breathed with a tired smile. "That would be wonderful."
"I'll have the car brought around."
Stepping away from her, he beckoned to a staff member and gave instructions to contact the valet desk. Behind him he could hear the stilted conversation between Saskia's family and his father, and Nic felt guilty at his relief that his share of it was nearly over. You would think that in a community as small as the Tiguri, with barely fifty families left, the sense of shared history and shared culture would draw them closer together, but it hadn't. Maybe it was because tigers were solitary animals, but the Tiguri just weren't good at building community, much less maintaining it. For that reason alone, the Council of Others should know that no Tiguri would want to get involved in the intricate business of Others politics. That would be like a hermit running for president—not only wouldn't he get any votes, but also he wouldn't know what to do with them if he did.
It took only a few minutes before a staff member alerted him that his car was waiting, and when he did Nic made short work of extricating himself and his fiancée from their parents' company and whisking her toward the lobby. He collected their coats from the concierge, helped her into hers, and guided her into the back of the black sedan with maximum efficiency and minimum fuss. Within moments, the driver had pulled away from the curb and eased his way into traffic. Nic relaxed back into his seat with a sigh and watched the twinkling lights of the city move past the tinted windows.
The interior of the car was silent for several moments, just the muffled sounds of motor and city and the occupants' quiet breathing. Then Saskia spoke softly. "I'm impressed."
Nic turned his head, his keen night vision having no trouble making out her delicate features. "Impressed?"
"You decided it was time to leave and had us out of there in under six minutes. If I'd tried to manage that, it would have taken me fifteen. Easily."
He heard the soft echo of amusement in her voice and flashed her a grin. "It's all about planning, timing, and execution."
"And ruthlessness. I admire that."
Both remained quiet for another long minute.
"You're different from how I remember you." Once again, Saskia took the first step to breach the silence. "At the time, I thought you were already all grown up, but now that I can see the man you've become, I realize how silly that idea was."
"You were … what? Eight? Last time we saw each other?" He watched her face, tried to read her expression, but all he could see was the tranquil blue of her eyes and the soft cream of her skin. "I'm sure at the time that nineteen seemed ancient."
She smiled. "Not ancient. Just … impressive."
He chuckled in spite of himself. "My nineteen-year-old ego thanks you for that."
Nic watched while she turned her gaze forward and stared unseeingly at the front of the car. The driver remained silent and anonymous behind the barrier of smoked glass, but Nic doubted Saskia even thought of him. Her attention all seemed focused inward, as if she barely even realized she wasn't alone. It was quite a kick to the ego. In the past, when Nic had taken the odd moment to envision having a mate he'd somehow never expected that she would be able to dismiss him so easily from her thoughts. It irked him, especially as often as his thoughts had turned to her in the last few hours. Which he also hadn't expected.
He considered and rejected several conversational forays while the limo cruised along the short distance from the hotel to their new home. Nic considered it new himself. He'd only moved in a week ago. His father had been the one to suggest that the new couple should have a place of their own, rather than a section of Stefan's admittedly enormous home. In essence, Nic had chose the new place with Saskia in mind; only he hadn't actually had her in mind, just an image of her—an anonymous female figure he'd pictured only as she related to him. His fiancée, his wife, his mate, the mother of his cubs. Now he found himself confronted with an actual person, and he no longer felt sure about what he should do. Should he speak? About what? Or should he keep silent and respect her privacy? Did what he did right now even matter? Presumably, they would have a few decades together to talk, to get to know each other. There was no hurry, was there?
While he debated with himself, Saskia sat silent beside him, her breathing calm and even, her face impassive. The only thing that gave a hint that the thoughts under her serene façade might be half as tumultuous as Nic's was the way her fingers tangled together in her lap, twisting and worrying the large diamond he'd given her just this evening. She made no move to take it off, just spun it around her slender finger as she stared out the tinted windows of the car.
"I should apologize."
Her words cracked the awkward silence, echoing in their automotive cocoon in spite of their soft volume.
"For what?" Nic asked, frowning.
"For my bad manners." She turned to face him then, and he felt her gaze on him almost as if she'd run soft, warm fingers across his cheek. "I never thanked you for my ring. It's beautiful."
His gaze dropped to the four-carat cushion-cut diamond on her hand, seeing the lights from the city outside glint off the brilliant stone. When he'd picked it out at the jeweler's, Nic hadn't thought about how it would look on her pale, delicate hand, but he had to admit, it looked right. As if it belonged. He liked seeing it there.
"There's no need to thank me." His voice came out gruffer than he intended, a low rumble in the dark. "It suits you."
"Still," she murmured, her gaze dropping to the ring. "I do love it. Thank you."
Before he could react, she shifted in the dim space, leaning forward and catching him off guard as she pressed her soft, warm mouth to his.
She might as well have punched him in the gut.
It overwhelmed him. He felt as if he'd slipped into a black hole, drawn by the gravity of this woman. Her soft lips, her warm breath, the rich, sweet scent of her skin, surrounded him, sent his senses whirling. Instinctively he reached out to steady himself and instead caught her upper arms in his hands and groaned. His fingers kneaded the pliant flesh, drawing her against him as he wrestled for control over himself and the unexpected kiss.
He felt her start with surprise when he parted his lips against hers, sensed the instant of hesitation, then the softening of her muscles against him. She had meant the kiss as a gesture, he realized, not an invitation, but she hadn't taken into account his reaction to her. He hadn't taken it into account, either. Nic had known his fiancée was a beautiful woman, had seen photos at the beginning of the engagement negotiations, and had felt confident that he would have no trouble when the time came to consummate their relationship. What man wouldn't find appeal in the idea of Saskia Arcos in his bed? He had expected to react to her, to want her once they ended up alone together, but he had never expected to need her.
It gnawed at him like a craving, a mindless, stomach-clenching need that grabbed hold the moment he felt the brush of her lips against his own. Her initial touch brushed against him fleeting, tentative, but he couldn't let her escape. His hands drew her to him even as his lips firmed, pressed, parted over hers. As her hesitation melted, she shivered against him and leaned into the pressure, her mouth softening and yielding to his. He swept forward to claim, to taste, to conquer.
She tasted of champagne, bright and yeasty, of the raspberries that had decorated the dessert plates, sweet and tart, and of herself, warm and rich and intoxicating. Nic felt his own breathing catch, and the beast inside him stirred. Head lifted; nose scented; fangs gleamed. Inside him, hunger stirred and claws flexed as anticipation built. He could already feel the stirrings of excitement that preceded the hunt. He sensed the growing awareness, the narrowing focus. He pressed into the soft figure in his arms and let the adrenaline course into his veins. His tiger had scented a potential mate, and it intended to claim her and mark her as his own. The fact that they still rode in the back of a chauffeur-driven car didn't even factor into it. The beast wanted, and the beast would take.
Copyright © 2012 by Christine Warren