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Maks clawed back to himself, hand braced against old brick, the quiet engine of a shuttle bus in the background small-town street traffic passing nearby. Mortar crumbled beneath his fingers.
Not getting better. Getting worse.
Not that he hadn't known it when he'd talked his way back into Sentinel field statuseven if no one else had guessed.
"Mommy, look at that man!" said a young voice, bright and curious. "Is he going to throw up?"
"You never know." Brisk retreating footsteps drove the tight voice. "Let's leave him alone."
Maks opened his eyes, knowing it was too soon. Knowing that the red brick of the shuttle bus depot would strobe with his accelerated heartbeat, in and out of double vision, in and out of reality. He caught the merest glimpse of a little boy trotting awaypulled along a little too fast for comfort, casting a look over his shoulder, stumbling
Maks growled. Softly, but a growl nonethelessfighting the protective urge to pluck the boy up and away.
Not much of that lately.
Just as well that he could do no more than roll his shoulders against summer-warmed brick and focus on where he was and what he was doing here.
Katie Maddox. That's why he was here.
Katie Maddox, nominal field Sentinel nominal visionary, plagued by uncertain portents. She'd wanted the Sentinel's Brevis Southwest region to look into it; she'd wanted brevis to watch her back. And the brevis consul Nick Carterhad sent Maks.
Maks closed his eyes, breathing in the scent of hot pine and astringent air turning his head to the breeze as it fingered his hair.
"Maks? Are you Maks?"
Damn. He stiffened, knowing from the doubt in her voice that the fugue still showed on him. Probably in him, and to judge by the dossier he'd studied between Tucson and this little highaltitude forest town, she could well see it.
Then see to it that it's gone.
He played to the tiger withina big cat in full stretch exuding lazy confidence and lurking strength. When he opened his eyes, there was a prowl behind them.
She recoiled a step. Light of foot, long of leg, perfect in balanceif she ran, she'd go far and she'd go fast. Her eyes widened, cinnamon brown, pupils big straight brown hair with that same cinnamon tint spilling out of her doubled ponytail.
Yes. Katie Maddox knew he wasn't rightquicker than anyone at brevis, she'd picked up on the growing threat from within him. And she knew, too, that he'd just seen the same in herthat she wasn't the usual Sentinel. Wasn't a hunter, a power-leashed protector a predator.
No. Katie Maddox was prey.
Katie Maddox, hold your ground.
She'd had years of practice. Years of growing up the only Southwest Sentinel who didn't take the form of something big and fierce and powerful, armed with fang and claw. Years of being bullied, pushed around dismissed and ignored. Until she'd retreated from the Sentinels, moving out to this tiny, high-country timber town to start her own small business and live life on her own terms.
She'd known he would be tiger. But she hadn't known it would shine through from him to her unpredictable seer's eyesmore than just chestnut hair with subtle black chunks nearly hidden in the shaggy nature of it, she could detect the hint of white at his temples that could well be mistaken for gray. More, too, than the size of him.
It was the intent in him. So completely quiet, and yet written there for the world to see.
Or just me?
She never knew.
But Katie didn't run, no matter the impulse of the deer. Her legs might tremble faintly with the restraint and her nostrils might flare with the effort, but she held her ground.
Because Maks Altan, Brevis Southwest field Sentinel, was the only help she was going to get.
She took a step forward, held out her hand, and smiled just enough to show the faint reflection of her own other faintly elongated canines rested against her lower lip.
Full-blooded field Sentinel, no less than he. Just different.
"Katie Maddox," he said, and his voice came from his chest, faintly rumbly and unexpectedly gentle, softened at the edges. Leaning against the wall with his head tipped back, he was bigger than she'd thought at first glancemainly because he wasn't beefy, wasn't exaggerated or barrel-chested or overly built. Long legs, broad shoulders, the muscle all to proportion.
Don't think about it.
"I'm sorry I'm late," she said, glancing around Pine Bluff's shuttle bus depot. It was already empty of the few others who had disembarked with him in this high country cow town gone to vacation industry, smack in the middle of Sitgreaves National Forest. With fir and pine everywhere and more vacation cottages than homes, the entire town stretched along one winding road and a few offshoot clusters. They rated a big box store and a Dairy Queen, but not a bus route.. just a shuttle winding its way down to the valley and back. Here, Katie provided therapeutic massage and physical therapy to sick and injured animals from the entire region. It was a modest living, but she did make a living. It didn't hurt that she was a healer in truth, even if she was limited by the need to go unnoticed.
This man would never go unnoticed. Not for long. It was another reason she'd been surprised to learn he was coming in on the shuttle. "I can't believe brevis HQ couldn't spare you a car."
His glance sharpened, full of wild green. "The shuttle gives me time to think."
"To read about me, I imagine," she said, arms crossed in challenge before she thought better of itand then couldn't believe herself. This conversation was where she wanted to go with their first meeting? This man she wanted on her side? The man she'd quickly assessed as being so close to his tiger, and a Sentinel with enough field experience to dress in the all-natural clothing that would take the change with him, simply as a matter of course.
And still she challenged himbecause she had to know where she stood with this man. "Brevis must have given you my filewhat did you think after reading my history? A marginal seer having the vapors over vague portents? Just like always?"
She braced herself for the responseand got only a mild frown. He lifted his chin briefly, eyes narrowingand she saw, then, the strength of the tiger in him. Could see in her mind's eye the image of a big cat, making that vaguely impatient acknowledgment to something in its world.
"Whatever's going on, brevis sent me to keep it from being a problem for you," he told her.
Right. He probably didn't believe her, but he had a job to do and he'd do it. Not as good as she'd hoped. Not as bad as she'd feared.
Except there was something else lingering in the air, tickling at her healer's instincts. Subtle and unfamiliar. She resisted the urge to shift a restless leg. So many little gestures, so many natural expressions, repressed in a world of Sentinel predators.
"My house has a little studio over the garage," she said, expert in the art of obscuring her own instinctive responses. "I thought we'd put you up there."
Maybe not so expert as all that, to judge from the look he gave her. Not so much challenge or annoyance as simply knowing. That she was faking her aplomb, for one. That she'd found herself unexpectedly affected by his presence as a man as well as a tiger.
But she'd read up on him, too. He had no empathy, no special skills or connections. He was simply what he wasa big man with a tiger's speed and strength at his disposal. So it wasn't true knowing, that look. It couldn't be.
It was only guessing.
He didn't respond to her suggestion; he merely reached down and hefted, with absurd ease, the battered black leather duffel sitting beside him.
At least, until he faltered.
It was only an instanta hesitation, his eyes closed and a sharp breath drawnand then he straightened, so casually that only her modest healer's skills allowed her to discern it at all.
The wave of unfocused energy washed through him and faded out again.
"Are you?" She stopped at his glance.
Not a man of many words. And not one who was going to talk about the moment. But she understood, now, as she imagined he understood, too. Why brevis had sent him here. A damaged Sentinel to help an inadequate and overreacting seer.
The Southwest Brevis consul no doubt figured they deserved each other.
"Be still." Jet ran her hands down Nick Carter's back as he leaned against his broad office desk. Her fingers searched out the cramping knots of muscle. She found the scar tissue deep within, almost-fatal wounds taking their time to heal.
Sentinels, she thought, weren't as invincible as they supposed themselves to be. Even the Southwest Brevis con-sultheir regional leader and her lovewasn't.
The night of Core D 'oiche had taken much from them all. Fabron Gausto, the local Core drozhar, had escalated his enmity beyond the perpetual cold war against the Sentinels, striking a deep blow against the Southwest Sentinels. He'd used Jet to do it, ripping her from her natural gray wolf form.
He'd ravaged her pack.
"All of this pain," she said, her thumb holding muscle until the problem trigger point began to relax and thinking not just of Nick, but of her pack, of his wounded Sentinels, "because too many years ago, a certain woman had two husbands." Her voice slipped into recitation mode of the details she was still learning. "One was Roman, and one was a druid. And they had no TV."
Nick stiffened against a laugh. "No, that they did not."
She stroked practiced fingers along the length of muscle, easing it. "And the druid's son could use the earth to make things happen, and the Roman's son didn't like it."
"Lower," Nick murmured, which Jet took for agreement.
"So the Roman's son learned how to take powers from other things and store them in amulets."
Nick looked over his shoulder, surprised. His features were still sharp-cut in the wake of recovery; his hoarfrost hair had a sprinkling of actual gray at the temples.
"Marlee told me that," Jet informed him. She slipped away to pace along Nick's office window; Tucson's Old Town spread out before her. "She's sad."
He turned to sit against the desk and watch her, his expression implacable.
"She's sorry," Jet offered. Thinking of the young Sentinel woman who had been so deceived by the Core and who had betrayed the Sentinels in turn.
But not to the end. Because of Marlee Cerrosa, Jet lived. Because Marlee, Core mole, turned on her makers, Nick lived.
"Jet," Nick said, and rubbed the side of his nose, wincing a little. "We can't trust her. And we can't spare the time to address her situation right now. She's safe; we're safe."
And a prisoner, right here in this building.
But Jet saw the look on Nick's facethe one that meant Nick's responsibilities to this giant pack called Sentinels weighed heavily on himand she let that detail pass. She said instead, "So the Roman's son started the Atrum Core, and said it was to protect everyone from the druid's pack, even though the druid's pack hadn't done anything wrong yet. Just because they might."
"That's the story," Nick said. "But I doubt the Sentinels were perfect then, either."
"And the druid's pack said they would protect the land from the Roman's son, and they did."
"All these years," Nick said, looking out the window himself visibly feeling the weight of Core D 'oiche. Feeling the particular weight of.
"Maks," she said out loud, if not very loudly. "You're thinking of Maks."
He closed his eyes, took a breath. "By everything we know, he's ready." And then, because he wouldn't lie to her and she knew it, Nick added, "He's ready for that job."
"He still isn't right," she pointed out, as if Nick didn't realize the region's best bodyguard still hadn't fully recovered after the Flagstaff ambush prior to Core D 'oiche and after the six-week coma.
Nick turned away and headed back to the desk. Gleaming wood desk, thick carpet, bright windows and plants everywherethis was the office of the man who commanded the entire region of the druid's modern sons and daughters. "He can handle this job."
Jet might have been the only one to hear the strain in his voiceor to know it for what it was. The weight of recent losses, recent injuries, recent betrayals. The weight of the decision he'd made about a friend.
Nick turned abruptly, his gaze the same sharp, pale green that had first sought hers in the Tucson desertfirst caught her there. "That area is where we found Maks," he told her, maybe a little too fiercely. "That area is home to him. He's the best man for the job. Andjust maybegoing home will help finish his healing."
Jet didn't know how. Not when she'd seen Maks's closed expression, the body language of a wounded predator trying to hide his weakness.
But because she'd also seen that look on Nick's faceheard that strain in his voiceshe didn't say the words that came to mind.
What if you 're wrong?