“You’re changing,” Lucian said, leaning over directly across from him, setting up his shot while inspecting Syn. “How?”
Syn’s eyes flipped up. “There’s no change. I’m an emotionless bastard. My desires and plans are the same as they always were.” Just waiting for Cruen to come to me, beg me to put him out of his misery. Except maybe that wasn’t his first thought anymore. His gaze shifted toward the spare bedroom. They were taking forever.
“You want Cruen,” Lucian said, then sent his cue into the ball, dropping a solid in the right side pocket. “We want Cruen.”
“What?” Syn glanced at the other two pavens. “What are you talking about?”
“That stupid piece-of-shit paven,” Alexander said. “As usual, he’s made a mess of things. This time in the shifter community.”
“He’s still there?” Syn said before leaning down and sending a striped ball into the far left corner pocket.
“Still?” Nicholas said, his sharp eyes locking with Syn’s. “How did you know he was there at all?”
Bloody brilliant, Mr. Wise. Get your head out of your arse and think before you speak. “Petra made a phone call home, remember? Now. Is he being hunted or made a guest?”
Though his gaze remained curious, Nicholas shrugged. “Not sure. Helo, Phane, and Dillon are speaking with the leaders of the factions now, trying to persuade them to go on a little search and capture.”
Syn didn’t mind the search. It was the capture he was worried about. If the shifters, the Romans, the pussy brothers, or whoever caught Cruen, that would mean a different plan. One that utilized his past skills as a spy.
“And what?” Synjon began. “You’re here to ask for my help in tracking him.”
“No,” Alex said, his cue aloft, his focus no longer on the game. “We need you and Petra to go before the Order—”
“Petra’s not going anywhere.” The words were far too quick exiting his mouth. He’d have to watch that.
All three Roman brothers stared at him, studied him.
“We need you to tell them you were never held against your will,” Nicholas said.
“You want me to lie?”
“Fuck, yeah,” Lucian snorted, leaning over the table to try a difficult shot. He was the only one still in the game. “Unless you want a war brought to the Rain Forest.”
Synjon once again ventured a glance at the hallway leading to the spare bedroom. “Why would you think I’d care about the Rain Forest and its occupants?”
Alexander eyed him, the corners of his mouth kicking up. “I don’t know. Maybe because that’s the home of the pregnant veana you stole and brought here because you’re feeling . . . ?”
A curl of annoyance went through Syn, but he kept it in check, kept it hidden. For all the things they thought they knew or had noticed about him, they didn’t know shit about what was going on inside him, or with him and Petra, or with him and the balas. Or how he couldn’t stop thinking about her, wanting her, wanting the balas, and how with each passing minute he grew more and more protective of them both.
“So?” Lucian said, after sending two balls into the left side pocket. “You gonna be a help? Or are you gonna be a total dickhead with no conscience?”
Without even looking at the table, Synjon smacked his cue into the ball. But instead of hitting one of his own, he sent the eight ball into the far right pocket. “That’s a knobhead with no conscience, Frosty.”
Luca grinned, broad and excited. “I’ve missed you, Brit Boy.”
• • •
Cruen stared at the pale gray flesh and sneered. “What do you call this exactly?”
“Cacuba,” said the young water shifter. “It’s a type of eel.”
They sat in the low rock caves near a waterfall spring. Several water shifters swam or sunbathed on the rocks like mermaids, while Robes, the young water shifter, and his older sister, Nore, cut up pieces of what they claimed to be magic-infused flesh.
“And why do you believe this gives one power?” Cruen asked, wondering if he’d made a grave mistake in remaining in the Rain Forest, expending his last shreds of mental and physical strength on a hope.
“We have used it,” Nore said, her dark eyes wide with excitement. “In hunting. In our rituals.”
Cruen took stock of his surroundings. He’d been to this very spot many moons ago, had taken samples from this same species, and yet, as he turned back to the plate of rotting gray flesh that was to make him powerful again, he felt no delight in being here once again. If this was a mistake, if nothing came of it, how could he return to the gathering rocks? Have the strength to return? His guard hadn’t been allowed to follow, and was waiting for him there. To flash him home, or to the table of the Order.
Oh, gods, the humiliation at his loss of power grew worse with every breath.
“Go ahead,” urged Robes, pushing the plate closer to Cruen. “You will see.”
He had fallen. Far and painfully. He grabbed the slimy eel flesh and stuffed it in his mouth. The taste was one of the most vile he’d ever experienced, and instead of chewing, he swallowed it whole.
“Now you will see,” Nore said, clasping her hands together.
Yes, Cruen thought, but will I feel? Will I feel power racing through my veins, my blood? Will I be able to flash to the balcony of one Synjon Wise and force him to remove his emotions from my mind?
Or will I be walking back to the gathering stones, searching, praying to all who will listen that I don’t lose my mind or my breath before I get there?
• • •
Petra sat cross-legged on the bed, picking at the imaginary lint on the new sage green comforter Synjon had insisted on buying her. Across from her, a plush striped green pillow separating them, was Dani.
It was like old times.
Except for the digs.
“There’s only one answer,” Petra said in what she hoped was a firm voice, because Dani rarely responded to anything less.
“So.” Dani cocked her head to the side. “You’re saying this is really about the baby?”
“Of course it’s about the baby.”
The hawk shifter shook her head, disbelieving. “You need to do your repeats.”
“Here, let me go over them with you.”
“Synjon Wise is a complete ass-cake.”
“Hey, wait.” Petra pointed at her and scowled. “That’s a new one.”
Dani shrugged. “Well, you know, they’re all along the same lines.”
“Listen,” Petra said, eyeing her closest friend in the world. “I don’t need to do any of that shit. I’m a grown female with a balas on the way.”
“Right. And the father of that balas just happens to be the guy you’ve always had a huge thing for. The guy who has whisked you off to his cocksure penthouse on top of the world, Pretty Woman’d your ass, and once again tried to get up your skirt. Did I leave anything out?”
Petra leaned back against her pillows—her very pretty, very green pillows—and grinned. “Yes.”
Dani’s eyes widened. “Oh, that motherfucker! What more did he do?”
“The part you left out is me saying no to the up-your-skirt.”
She sniffed. “For now.”
Petra shook her head. “Don’t. Don’t do that. I’m not an idiot.”
“Of course you’re not. But you’re into that bastard. You may even be in love with him.”
Petra’s chest tightened, and the air inside her lungs released in a rush, but she still managed to push out a pretty convincing response. “Come on.”
“I’m eye-rolling right now in case you can’t tell.”
“My plan is to come home after I have the baby and start a life and a family with Brodan.”
Silence claimed the bedroom for a good ten seconds, and then Dani said, “Brodan, huh?”
“Yes.” That tightening in Petra’s chest upgraded to a rusty, painful vise.
“He’s a good male.”
Petra nodded. “He totally is.”
Again Dani paused. Then, “Yeah, that’ll never happen.”
Petra broke out laughing. “You asshole, Dani.”
Dani started laughing too.
“I love you—you know that?” Petra said, climbing off the bed.
The hawk shifter followed suit. “I love you too.”
Petra linked arms with her as they walked out the door and down the hall. “Come on. I’ll take you to your launchpad.”
“Fine.” Dani gave her a warning look. “But you’ve got my number.”
“Damn right I do.” Petra gave her best friend a wry grin as they entered the living room.
First thing Petra noticed was that all three Roman brothers were gathered around the pool table talking. The second thing she noticed was that Synjon wasn’t among them.
She pushed past Dani and eyed the brothers. “Where is he?”
“Gone,” Alex said, placing his stick on the table.
Dani came to stand at her side. “No freaking way.”
Petra’s gut twisted, and she looked from Alex back to Dani. “What? What’s wrong? What did you do?”
Dani turned and gave her a mixture of a smirk and a sneer. “Yeah. You don’t dig his ass at all.” Shaking her head, she left Petra’s side and walked toward the sliding glass door. “That selfish paven has done something unselfish, that’s all.”
Confused and growing slightly concerned, Petra turned to Alex, Nicholas, and Lucian. “Where is he?”
Nicholas put his pool cue down next to Alex’s. “He’s going before the Order.”
Petra gasped. It was as if her unbeating heart had suddenly dropped to her feet. “What? Oh, my gods. Why?”