Slamming his fist into the wall wasn’t the smartest thing he’d ever done, but it was that or punch his roommate. Since the current situation was none of Lonzo’s fault, Larem aimed his temper at something that wouldn’t bruise—or hit back—although right now a good down-and-dirty fight held some appeal. The pain was slow to register, but his blood stood out in stark relief against the white paint.
“Damn it, Larem, was that really necessary? I hope to God you didn’t break anything. It’s your night to do the dishes.” Lonzo’s comment was an equal mix of worry and disgust. “We both know Devlin has no choice in the matter. Besides, it’s only temporary.”
Larem flexed his hand gingerly. Nothing broken. Nothing solved. He was still caught between two worlds, neither of which particularly wanted to lay claim to him.
“Yeah, why not make it easier on everyone concerned and tell the Regents to make one big cage and stuff all of us into it?”
Swallowing hard against the bitter taste of his rage, he slowly turned to face his worried friend. “Or better yet, shove us back across the barrier. With any luck, our own people will solve the problem of what to do with us with a few swings of a sword.”
Lonzo had his own temper and shoved Larem hard enough to send him bouncing back against the wall. “Larem, don’t be such a dumb ass. You know that none of us would let that happen.”
Larem got right back up in his friend’s face. “Correction, Lonzo. None of you would want that to happen, but you’re paid to follow orders. Once the Regents decide they want us gone, what can you do to stop them? If you refuse to rid the world of a few inconvenient Kalith, they can always find someone who will.”
A deep voice joined the discussion. “You’re wrong, Larem. That’s not happening. Not now, not tomorrow, not ever. We owe you and the others too much.”
Larem wanted to believe Devlin Bane. He really did, but he’d been betrayed too many times by his own kind to easily accept that his former enemies would behave any differently. Before he could respond, another Paladin came out of the conference room and headed straight for Larem.
“This new policy is nothing but crap, and you know it.” Hunter Fitzsimon glared at Devlin, his green eyes blazing with pure rage. “I have more reason than most to hate what comes boiling across the barrier at us, but Larem is different.”
Devlin rolled his huge shoulders, no doubt trying to shrug off some tension. “Listen all of you. You’ll get no arguments from me on that score, but until this new rep from the Regents is actually here, I can’t do anything about it. Arguing by e-mail won’t get the job done, but when he gets here, I’ll make our case.”
“Yeah, right, and if he doesn’t buy it? What then?” Hunter turned his attention to Larem. “Pack up your things. You’re coming home with me and Tate. The apartment over the garage is yours as long as you need it.”
Devlin looked as if he wanted to argue some more, but then the big man shut his mouth and shrugged. “He’s right, Larem. I can’t promise the new guy will listen to me. If you’ll feel safer putting some distance between yourself and this pencil pusher, I wouldn’t blame you. Better yet, go camp out with Penn and Jora in Wyoming if you want, at least until the dust settles and we know more what we’re dealing with.”
For the first time since Devlin had called the morning meeting to order, Larem didn’t feel quite so alone. As tempting as it was to take off with Hunter or even to pay a surprise visit to Penn Sebastian, the thought of hiding out didn’t set well with him. A warrior both by training and by nature, he would not run.
“I’ll wait to see what happens. Besides, I’m not the only one affected by this order.” Larem nodded down the hallway to where Barak q’Young stood with his sister, who had two Kalith children at home. “We can’t all go into hiding.”
Devlin sighed, clearly tired of dealing with all the “bureaucratic bullshit” as he usually called it. “This guy is supposed to show up by the end of the week. I’d suggest we do business as usual until then.”
Like anything had been usual for Larem in a long, long time. “Are we done? If so, I’m out of here.”
Without waiting for an answer, he headed for the gym, intent on working off some anger banging blades with someone, anyone. A few seconds later both Hunter and Lonzo caught up with him. He’d rather have been left alone for a few minutes, but couldn’t fault them for trying to show their support. The least he could do was show his appreciation by bruising them up some.
They walked into the gym and headed straight for the rack of practice weapons. Larem reached for one of the blades the armorer had recently added to the collection specifically for the Kalith warriors to use. After a few warm up swings, he stripped off his shirt and faced off against his two friends.
“All right, gentlemen, who wants to bleed first?”
Hunter’s wolfish grin was a mirror reflection of Larem’s own. With a quick salute the battle was on.
“Look, I know you have your orders. But you do know that it’s not too late to change your mind, right?”
It wasn’t a question and they both knew it. Sasha was used to her father issuing edicts and expecting her to obey them to the letter. That didn’t mean she liked it, especially when in this case where her father wasn’t the one in charge of her current mission.
“Yes, Dad, it is.” She kept her voice level and met his gaze head on. “I wish you’d accept that.”
Her father sat at his desk, staring at her over his steepled fingers, ready to pounce at the first sign of weakness. She wasn’t going to back down now just because he wanted her to.
These days she took her orders from the Board of Regents as a whole, not just him and that did not make him at all happy. The group oversaw the Paladins and their ongoing mission to protect the world from invasion by the dark forces from the opposite side of an energy barrier. She’d known about the Paladin’s secret world of death and violence since her early teens, although her knowledge was largely secondhand.
From the minute she’d graduated from college, Sasha had pushed and prodded, trying to convince her father to let her join the organization. Finally, another Regent and family friend had intervened on her behalf. Slowly, she’d worked her way up the ladder, earning the trust and respect of those around her. Now she was finally going to get the chance to make a difference in how things were done.
Another party entered the conversation from his seat across the room. “Chaz, lay off the girl. You know as well as I do that she is well qualified for the job, and she deserves the chance to prove herself.”
Her father didn’t even glance in his old friend’s direction. “Shut up, George. She’s my daughter. That gives me the right to interfere when I think it’s in her best interest.”
“And who’s to decide what’s best for her? She’s worked long and hard to get this opportunity. Don’t screw it up for her because you’re not ready to cut the apron strings. She’s all grown up. It’s time you realized that.”
Sasha hid her smile. George was her honorary uncle and godfather. He was also one of the few men who could chastise her father and get by with it.
“I don’t doubt my daughter’s abilities, George. But as both her father and a Regent, I have some misgivings about what kind of situation we’ll be sending her into. We both know Kincade made a mess of things.”
George strolled over to perch on the side of her father’s desk. “You’re thinking he wasn’t working alone.”
“I’m thinking we don’t know. Neither of you can blame me for not wanting Sasha caught up in any fallout.”
“Oh, Dad, come on. I’m going to go through files and reestablish some positive communication between the Paladins and the Regents. Once I’ve got a feel for where things went wrong, I’ll be in contact with the Board with recommendations. It’s not like I’m expecting to become anyone’s new best friend.”
“Yes, well, when it comes to the Paladins, what we expect and what we get are often two different things.”
She noticed the time and stood up. “I’d better get going.”
“Do you have everything?”
Her bags were packed, and she had her one way ticket in hand. In two short hours, she’d board the plane that would carry her to her new home in Seattle. The Regents probably intended that her assignment there be only a temporary fact-finding mission. Certainly that’s what her father wanted, but she had no intentions of returning to St. Louis anytime soon.
Instead, she planned on proving herself worthy of being the first person of her generation to be appointed as a full-fledged Regent. For now, that remained her own little secret, a dream she wasn’t about to share with her father even if he probably had his suspicions. He was already unhappy about her new assignment. Up until now, her job duties had kept her insulated from actual contact with Paladins and that was about to change.
He hated the idea. She couldn’t wait.
“Yes, I have everything I need, Dad.” She checked her watch again. “My ride should be here any minute, so I’d better get moving.”
“Report in as soon as you get there.”
She smiled at the gruff worry in her father’s voice. He might not always show it, but he did love her.
“I will once I get checked into the hotel. After that, I’ll stay in touch by e-mail. I expect to be pretty busy at first, what with getting to know everyone and finding a place to live.”
He rose to his feet and walked around to her side of the desk, probably hoping his superior height would give him the advantage. “Sasha, I’ve already told you that there’s no need for you to rent an apartment. A hotel room will suffice for the length of time you will need to assess the situation in Seattle and report back to me—I mean the board.”
They’d been over this same ground again and again, neither one willing to give an inch. It was time to leave. She kissed her godfather on the cheek.
“Thanks for everything, Uncle George. I appreciate everything you did to make this possible.”
"You’re welcome, my dear. I’m sure you’ll have the Seattle sector whipped into shape in no time.” Then he winked at her. “And don’t worry about your father. I’ll keep an eye on him for you.”
Her dad was not amused. “Very funny, George. Go drink some more of my good scotch and stay out of this.”
Then he followed her to the door still talking. “Sasha, once we know the situation, the Board can take it from there. The main thing is to make it clear that we have policies in force for a reason. Despite everything that’s happened over the past couple of years, we expect those policies to be followed.”
She clenched her teeth. “Both you and the rest of the Regents have made that perfectly clear.”
In large part, she agreed with those policies, but sometimes change couldn’t be stopped, only controlled. Knowing her father’s opinion on the subject, she kept that to herself. Yes, the Seattle Paladins had stepped out of bounds a few times, but they were still doing the job. Someone had to go out there and see what was going on, but that someone needed to keep an open mind.
“Take care, Dad.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
Chaz stood at his office window and watched until he saw his daughter climb in a cab on the street ten floors below. That bright red hair of hers stood out in any crowd. Damn it, it had been too much to hope that she’d back down. He was still furious that she’d managed to rally enough support among his peers to get this assignment. Starting with the man standing beside him.
“George, I really wish you would‘ve stayed out of this.”
His friend shrugged. “Chaz, you and I both know that she deserves this chance. We need someone out there that we can trust to do the job right. Would you rather the Board pick someone else, someone we can’t control?”
Chaz laughed. “If you think you can control Sasha, especially from two thousand miles away, you have sorely underestimated your influence over her.”
George clapped him on the shoulder. “Come on, Chaz, how much trouble can she get into? We both know Devlin Bane and the rest of the Paladins have no use for number crunchers. At best, they’ll tolerate her. At the worst, they’ll ignore her. Certainly, they won’t trust her. Meanwhile, we’ve managed to buy ourselves some time to deal with Kincade himself. We have to find out who else was involved in his shenanigans before we assign a new Regent to that sector.”
“That’s just the problem, George. Sasha doesn’t see her assignment to Seattle as a stopgap measure. She has every intention of doing the job right.”
“Well, then, on that note, I should get back to work. The sooner we managed to break Kincade, the sooner we can move on.”
Chaz waited with George until the elevator arrived. “Keep me posted on your progress.”
“I will. Now go relax. Sasha is fine.”
Easy for him to say. Who knew what kind of mess she was walking into out there on the coast? If only that bastard Kincade had kept his greed under control, things would have turned out differently. But he hadn’t, leaving everyone else to clean up his mess.
As he walked back into his office, Chaz considered his options, which were both few in number and limited in scope. As a last resort, he could fly to Seattle himself, but Sasha would never forgive him for swooping in to take over. As much as he hated her getting involved even deeper with the day-to-day lives of Paladins, he was proud of her for her single-minded pursuit of her dreams. If he could avoid crushing them completely, he would.
Having a second pair of eyes on site was the best he could do. Sasha would report in, but only because she had to and even then only what she was willing to share. If he was going to get all of the facts, he needed to have his own man in place. The trouble was, as George had said, no one knew for sure who all had been involved in Kincade’s schemes. After running down his mental list of possible candidates for the job, Chaz made his decision. The man he had in mind had served both him and George well as a source of information in the past. There was no reason to think he wouldn’t this time.
He picked up the phone and hit a number on his speed dial. When the guy on the other end picked up, Chaz kept it simple.
“Pack your bags. Seems you just got transferred to Seattle. I want someone I trust to keep me informed about what’s going on out there and do what’s necessary to keep things from going to hell. There’s a bonus in it if you get there by the end of the week.”
Five minutes later Chaz hung up. Now only time would tell if he’d made things worse or protected his agenda.
The view of Mt. Rainier from Sasha’s hotel room was stunning. Her plane had flown disturbingly close to the mountain on the way over the Cascades. The helpful pilot had also pointed out St. Helens and Mt. Adams, two of the other volcanoes in the region, as he guided the plane into its final approach to Seattle. A chill slithered over her skin at the memory, but she resisted the urge to pull the drapes. She had to get used to the sight eventually, and the sooner the better.
Granted the three peaks were beautiful, but she knew their truth. Underneath all that magnificent splendor beat the cold hearts of killers. At times unstable, always unpredictable, and when the mood hit, totally lethal. Even if the mountains didn’t do all the killing themselves, they also harbored the Others, the crazed murderers from another world. Sasha couldn’t simply enjoy the volcanoes rugged beauty, not when she knew about the trained warriors who lived and died under those scenic slopes, all to keep people like her safe.
The Paladins—a group shrouded in secrecy. Even working for the Regents, at best she’d only caught an occasional glimpse of any of the St. Louis contingent. Her father had done his best to protect her from the world the Paladins lived in. Even based on her limited experience, she knew why.
They were warriors in the finest sense of the word--alpha males in all their glory, the kind of men who attracted women wherever they went. But not her. Not again. She knew better. Another secret she’d kept from her father and the Regents because if they’d found out, they might have terminated her employment immediately. Despite the passage of time, the memories remained sharp and clear, the pain still achy like an old sports injury that acted up whenever it rained.
But enough of that; it was time. Ignoring the flutter of butterflies in her stomach, she picked up her briefcase and left her room. Her first meeting with her new charges was scheduled in less than an hour. Devlin Bane, a legend in their world, hadn’t been happy when she’d refused his request to meet with him one-on-one ahead of time.
He’d raised some valid arguments in a brief flurry of e-mails, but she didn’t want anything to color her first impressions of the Paladins stationed in the Seattle area. Besides, it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that they’d close ranks to shut her out. Fine. They had good reason not to trust the Regents anymore. She expected to have to work long and hard to break through their firmly ingrained “us versus them” mentality.
If she could reestablish a positive working relationship, she’d guide them back into compliance with the regulations established by the Regents for the good of all. The Paladins were the best at what they did, but somehow this bunch had gone way off track, even to the point of harboring the enemy among their ranks.
Her father and some of his associates were all for shipping the ringleaders out, scattering them over the globe. She’d managed to convince the board as a whole that to do so would only spread the contagion.
No, containment was the appropriate goal and her first in a long list. As the elevator whisked her down to the ground floor, a hit of pure adrenaline hit her veins. The battle for control was about to begin.
It was time to report to the conference room. Larem had reluctantly agreed to attend the meeting as the sole Kalith representative in the crowd. Barak and Lusahn had wanted to come, too, but Devlin had advised against it. At least he’d agreed that one of them should be there to hear what the representative had to say. Larem had no idea why the Paladin leader had picked him instead of one of the others and hadn’t bothered to ask.
He joined the long line of Paladins making their way toward the meeting place. Inside the room, he paused long enough to locate Hunter and Lonzo, who had promised to save him a place next to them. He spotted them standing along the back wall near one of the other doors. Lonzo was on duty and needed to be one of the first ones out the door if the barrier decided to crash.
“Hey, roomie, thought maybe you’d changed your mind.” Lonzo scooted to the side to make room for Larem between himself and Hunter.
D.J. joined them on the wall, his eyes flitting around the room. “Rumor has it the new administrator has been ducking Devlin. What’s up with that?”
Larem shrugged. “Maybe he’s afraid of the big man.”
Hunter laughed, his ruined voice holding little humor. “Maybe the guy is smarter than we gave him credit for. Think if one Regent rep went missing, they’d get the message and leave us the hell alone?”
Larem ignored the banter, focusing instead on a sudden stir at the front of the room. Devlin had cleared the doorway, but appeared that for once he wasn’t the one leading the parade. Whoever had entered the room ahead of the big Paladin was too short to be seen over the roomful of Paladins and guards. Interesting.
Few of the others in the room had even noticed that the party was about to begin. Devlin looked back to bark something at Trahern, who had followed him into the room. The other Paladin nodded and immediately stuck two fingers in his mouth and blew hard. The shrill whistle brought all conversation to a screeching halt.
Devlin moved up to the podium and glared around the room, his eyes locking up with Larem’s briefly. He gave a slight nod before moving on, maybe expressing his approval that Larem had dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt to better blend in with his companions. He’d also tied his hair back with a leather thong, although he wasn’t the only male in the room sporting hair down past his shoulders. Devlin himself wore his dark hair long, but it lacked the sprinkling of gray that gave the Kalith their distinctive look.
“Okay, everybody, listen up. I’d like to introduce our new administrator, who’d like to talk to all of us on behalf of the Board of Regents.”
Before he could complete the introduction, the crowd turned restless. Larem didn’t bother to join the chorus of angry voices, figuring it wouldn’t accomplish anything. Still, there was part of him that was glad that the Paladins weren’t going to make it easy for the Regents’ representative to impose his will over them.
Devlin obviously had a different take on the situation. When the rumbling continued, he shouted, “Will you guys shut the fuck up?” his face flushed red as he turned to face his unpopular companion. “Sorry about that.”
Lonzo looked like he’d swallowed a worm. “Did Dev just apologize to a Regent?”
“Yeah, that’s just wrong.” D.J. rose up on his toes to see better. “Well, I’ll be damned.”
“Yeah, you will,” Hunter muttered, “but can you see the guy?”
D.J. shook his head, as if to clear it, before answering. “He’s a she.”
That had all of them stretching their necks, hoping to see over the crush of oversized men that filled the room. Finally, the new administrator made it easier on everybody by climbing up on a chair. As the woman waited for her unwilling audience to fall silent, she did her own fair share of staring back at them.
Larem’s heart lurched in his chest. Not only was he a she, she was a striking one. Or at least she would be if she didn’t wear her flaming red hair yanked back from her face in an unruly wad at the nape of her neck. He couldn’t see what color her eyes were from across the room, but they looked dark and intelligent. If she was nervous facing a boisterous crowd of angry men, it didn’t show.
Her gaze swept past Larem without pausing, which should make Devlin happy. When she cleared her throat and prepared to speak, he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the wall to listen to what she had to say. After she was done talking, he’d report back to Barak and Lusahn before making up his mind what to do next.
His first choice was to stay right where he was because he had commitments he didn’t want to renege on. Too many were depending on him and his particular skill set. If forced, he’d hide out at Hunter’s place for a while, but that reeked of cowardice to him. No, if he and this woman were to be enemies, it suited his nature to face her directly rather than retreat.
Her voice rang out over the room, carrying to the far corners with a surprising amount of confidence.
“Gentlemen, permit me to introduce myself. My name is Sasha Willis. My last name may be familiar to you because my father is a member of the Board of Regents. I have been serving in Ordnance for the past five years, reporting directly to the Board.”
Once again, she panned the room, as if assessing each man in the room before continuing. “You have absolutely no reason to trust me at this point, and no one can blame you for feeling that way. Too many times the organization has failed you. I’m here to see if I can change that. Rest assured that I have the utmost respect for the Paladins and the amazing job you do.”
She drew a deep breath. “For starters, I’m going to meet with the Handlers to reestablish a set schedule for all types of testing, including scans.”
Once again, the murmurs of discontent started building. She ignored them and waited for silence to settle over the room before speaking again.
“Look, I am well aware that Col. Kincade used the scans as a punitive measure. I’ve already issued orders that practice will cease immediately. Diagnostic procedures will be done on a regularly scheduled basis only, unless the Handlers feel a particular case warrants more frequent monitoring.”
Larem was willing to bet that his eyes weren’t the only ones that immediately sought out Trahern. It was common knowledge that his test results had been getting steadily closer to the edge for years. They all knew that the only reason he was still breathing was because Brenna and Laurel had been too stubborn to give up on the man the last time he’d died. By all reports, it had been a close call. Too close.
“In that same vein, I’m happy to announce that I plan to authorize additional staff and funding to enable Dr. Young to continue her studies in that area. She and I will be discussing the matter in greater detail in the near future.”
Trahern looked marginally happier, but not by much. Devlin had left the administrator’s side to stand next to his longtime friend in a show of support. From the look the Willis woman gave him, she hadn’t missed the gesture or mistaken its meaning.
“I will be studying all of your files, hoping to familiarize myself with everyone who is stationed here in Seattle, starting with the Paladins and the guards, and then moving on to all the support personnel. I understand that we also have special guests living and working here in Seattle. They will be dealt with as well.”
Okay, so that definitely sounded like a threat to him. At least she hadn’t come right out and ordered the Kalith population rounded up for immediate disposal. Maybe she’d order a special Dumpster for just that purpose. He doubted his friends would appreciate the dark turn of his thoughts. But then they had nothing to fear from the Regents because Paladins were too short in supply for their masters to risk alienating them completely.
The meeting was evidently winding down as Sasha Willis continued. “I know you all have questions, ones I hope to answer given time and opportunity. For now, I want to extend my personal gratitude for the work you’ve done here in Seattle and continue to do. Thank you for your attention, gentlemen.”
Then she hopped down off the chair and made a beeline for the door. Once again, Devlin headed for the podium. His men fell silent, waiting to hear what their leader had to say.
“Like the lady said. We have questions and she has no answers—yet. I’m asking that you give her a chance.”
“What choice do we have?”
The comment came from somewhere in the middle of the pack, but Larem didn’t recognize the voice. Devlin did because he shot the guy a dark look.
“The long and the short of it is none at all, but let’s not assume the worst until we have to. I repeat what I said. Give the lady a chance. She can’t be any worse than Kincade was. Who knows, she might even surprise us. Now, get your asses back to work.”
The grumbling this time sounded more like the usual kind. Lonzo made his escape, heading for the tunnels. D.J. muttered something about having an e-mail that he had to check into and plowed through the crowd with his usual total disregard for those in his way.
Larem had almost reached the door when the Klaxons went off. He ducked back out of the way, clearing the path for the Paladins behind him as they all rushed to answer the call of duty. One part of him envied them their clear purpose in life, but at the same time hated the necessity for it. How many of his own people would die before the barrier was restored? How many of his human friends would bleed?
He watched as Hunter and D.J. followed Lonzo into the elevators that plunged down into the tunnels below the city, their game faces on.
Devlin came charging up, his favorite sword clutched in his hand. Larem instinctively retreated a few steps before common sense took over and reminded him that they were friends or at least not enemies.
“What do you need, Devlin?”
“Can you track down Sasha Willis and make sure she made it out of here before all hell broke loose?”
They both looked around, but if she was in the area, Larem didn’t see her. That came as no great surprise. The milling crowd of Paladins pretty much all topped six feet, making spotting one small human woman almost impossible.
“I’ll find her.”
Not that he wanted to. But for Devlin’s sake, he’d make sure the woman stayed out of the way of those who had work to do. Pencil pushers, as D.J. called those in administration, had no role to play in the daily grind of a Paladin’s life. If this Sasha Willis managed to get herself in the way of the fighting, she’d learn the hard way why she had no business trying to tell the Paladins and their companions how to do their jobs.
He ducked back into the conference room in case the administrator had sought refuge there, only to find it completely empty. Where could she have disappeared to so quickly?
Her office wasn’t in this building, which housed the Paladins themselves as well as some of the research facilities, including the geology department where Barak and his mate both worked. If he didn’t find the administrator soon, he’d ask them to join the search.
The closest exit was down the hallway that passed by the area where Devlin and some of the others had their offices. He tried that direction first. Sure enough, he spotted the woman hovering outside of Devlin’s door. She looked up as Larem drew near. He wasn’t sure what to say. After all, he’d only be charged with making sure she hadn’t gotten caught up in the crush of bodies heading down to the tunnels.
Mission accomplished. Job done. He could get back to his own business with a clear conscience, at least after he reported to Barak what had been said the meeting. He kept his eyes straight ahead, intending to walk right by Sasha Willis without making any contact. Unfortunately, she had other plans.
“Excuse me, but did you happen to see Devlin Bane?”
Larem slowed his steps just long enough to answer. “He headed down to the tunnels when the alarm went off.”
She cocked her head to the side, as if puzzled by his answer, but maybe it was his accent that surprised her. Finally, she slowly nodded, as if he’d confirmed her suspicions. “I thought that might be the case. I’d ask how long these things usually take, but I suppose that it varies a great deal, depending on how long the barrier stays down and how many Others are waiting to charge across.”
What could he say to that? He settled for saying nothing. Before he could walk away, though, she stopped him again.
“I’m sorry to keep bothering you, but I’m a bit turned around. Can you point me in the direction of the nearest exit? I’ll go back to my offices until Devlin has time to meet with me.”
“The door to the alley is back down this way.”
He waited while she jotted Devlin a quick note and stuck it on the small corkboard the Paladin leader kept on his door for just that purpose. Before she was done, Cullen walked into sight, offering Larem the perfect opportunity to make his escape. After all, Devlin had thought it best if all the Kalith kept a low profile for a while. How could he do that and act as escort for the woman they were all supposed to avoid?
“Excuse me, Cullen, but I’m late for an appointment. Could you show the administrator how to get back to her office?”
Without waiting for his friend to respond, Larem walked away. Maybe he should feel guilty for forcing Cullen to take over, but this Sasha Willis had already picked up on his accent. If she got a closer look at him, she might recognize him for what he was. Who knew where that would lead?
Somehow he didn’t think anyone connected with the Board of Regents would appreciate Kalith warriors being allowed to wander around unescorted. In fact, no one would be surprised if orders didn’t come down to do a lot more than restrict their access to Paladin facilities.
Just before the turn at the end of the hall, he risked one last look back. Cullen was showing her something on his computer screen, probably how he monitored the fighting across the region. Either way, it gave Larem the perfect opportunity to study Sasha Willis without her knowing it.
She was listening intently to Cullen, nodding occasionally. Cullen was one of the resident computer geniuses. He was definitely looking impressed when she said something and pointed toward the screen.
But it wasn’t just the intelligence that Larem sensed in the woman that held his attention. While almost all Kalith had dark hair and pale gray eyes, Sasha Willis was their direct opposite. Her hair was fiery red, the warm color of embers burning brightly.
He noticed a couple of curly strands had escaped from her attempt to subdue them. His hands itched to pull those pins from her hair and set those strands free. He bet she hated the halo of curls that would surround her face, softening the strong angles of her high cheek bones and full mouth. How would she taste? Tart? Sweet?
He had no business wondering about such things, and just his luck, he’d been caught staring. Rather than run, he nodded her direction and then calmly walked away. Perhaps she’d only think he’d been assuring himself that she was receiving the help she needed. Rather than worry about it any further, he headed for the geology lab to consult with Barak and Lacey.
Sasha was doing her best to follow Cullen Finley’s detailed explanation about the network he and D.J. had designed for the Paladins to use. So far, she’d managed to understand most of what he was saying. Or at least she had been until she’d sensed someone staring at two of them. Straightening up, she took a slow casual look around the area.
It didn’t take long to spot who was watching them—the guy who’d initially helped her was still lurking not far away. The question was why he felt compelled to hang around, especially when he’d jumped on the first opportunity to hand her off to someone else.
He moved and spoke with such quiet dignity and spoke English with an odd cadence, as if it weren’t his native language. No surprise there. Paladins lived and worked all over the world. He might have been transferred into the area from almost anywhere.
As he nodded and then turned away, she forced her attention back to the computer screen. Who was he? She could ask Cullen, but found herself oddly reluctant to do so. Besides, all of the local Paladin personnel files were waiting on her desk back in the admin building. She could always shuffle through them to find out his name if she really wanted to.
The only question that bothered her was why she found him so oddly compelling after such a brief encounter. Sure he was handsome, but all of the Paladins she’d met so far had that inborn charisma so characteristic of alpha males. This particular guy stood out of the crowd only because she’d encountered him one on one, rather than as part of that pack she’d faced earlier.
She realized that Cullen had stopped talking several seconds ago. “Sorry, Mr. Finley. I’m still trying to take all of this in.”
He shot a quick look down the hall where the mystery man had gone. “Want me to show you the way out now, Ms. Willis?”
“I’d appreciate it.”
Cullen logged off his computer and stood up. “It’s down this way. The door will lead out into an alley. By the way, we usually have a guard posted there all the time. Just thought you’d like a head’s up on that. Since you’re new, I’ll walk you out to make sure there’s no problem.”
“That’s very kind of you.”
They walked in companionable silence. She noticed another hall branched off to the left just as they reached the door. “What’s down that way?”
“Just some labs,” Cullen said as he opened the door to the alley.
As she followed him outside, she wondered why his comment seemed a little too casual, as if he were downplaying the importance those labs. Maybe she was reading too much into it, but she very much suspected that Cullen Finley was relieved that she didn’t ask any more questions.
That was all right—for now. Eventually, though, she’d learn far more about the entire organization than any of them were going to be comfortable with.
© 2011 Patricia L. Pritchard