“Agreed.” Lucas’s logic was sound. “I apologize for my intrusion.”

Raising an eyebrow, the leopard alpha snorted. “You’re not sorry in the least, but you figure it’s better to be friends with me than otherwise.”

Vasic sometimes wondered at those in the Net who considered the changelings too driven by their primal natures to be intelligent adversaries. Clearly, none had ever met one of the felines. Now the other man said, “How bad is New York?”

“Bad.” Vasic never shifted his attention off Ivy. “Initial estimates are that we lost four hundred Psy tonight, the majority dead, a fifth badly infected.” All of whom would slip into irrevocable comas if the past pattern held true.

“Approximately fifty humans and three nonpredatory changelings dead, caught in the middle.” An eagle had ID’d the changeling casualties. “One adult male survivor, talent: psychometry. The other Psy survivors were all empaths.” His race was imploding, and there seemed to be nothing any of them could do about it.

“We also heard reports of a second outbreak on the heels of the New York one.”

Vasic nodded, the data having come in during the past fifteen minutes. “Seattle. Krychek’s taken charge there, but the overall situation is spiraling rapidly out of control.” And it was causing Ivy to hurt herself. “Do empaths have a self-destructive streak?”

Lucas shot him a shrewd look. “No,” he said, his tone low. “But they do have a tendency to put themselves last. An empath’s capacity to care is what makes her who she is.” His eyes lingered on his mate. “It’s also an E’s greatest weakness.”

It was at that instant that Vasic truly understood the battle his great-grandfather had faced in attempting to protect his Sunny from her most profound instincts. “I don’t care if it makes her hate me,” he said to Lucas Hunter, “I will not permit her to sacrifice herself.”

The other man’s lips curved slightly. “When an E loves, she loves with every ounce of her being. She might be so angry with you she can’t speak, might possibly throw things at your head”—a very feline glint in his eye—“but she will never hate you. That’s the one advantage you have when it comes to protecting her.”

“Are you advising me to manipulate my . . .” He didn’t have a word for what Ivy was to him, used the one with which the man beside him was familiar. It fit. “My mate?”

Rubbing at his stubbled jaw, Lucas said, “‘Manipulate’ is a strong word. I’m talking more about a gentle reminder that her life isn’t only her own . . . that it would break you to lose her.”

That, Vasic thought, was the absolute truth.

Sascha rose from her position bent over Ivy right then. “I think she just burned herself out,” she said, rubbing absently at her lower back with one hand. “Vasic, can you carry her to one of the cushions?” She nodded at the large, flat cushions that lay scattered on the floor. “It’d be better for her than a hard table.”

Vasic didn’t do it using his telekinesis. Didn’t want the distance. Gathering the woman who owned his battered heart gently in his arms, he carried her to a cushion set away from the windows that told him this wasn’t a cabin on the ground, but an aerie in the branches of a tree. When Ivy curled up on the cushion, it unraveled a dark knot in his chest. Ivy?

No verbal or telepathic response, but her lips tugged up at the corners and she rubbed her face against the hand he’d placed on her cheek. It was enough. Sleep. I’ll be here. He’d always be there, even if he had to tear the malfunctioning parts of the gauntlet from his body himself. He didn’t trust her to look out for herself.

Standing only when she seemed to fall into a deep, natural sleep, he turned to find Sascha had moved to the kitchen area with her mate, the couple talking quietly to one another.

“Here.” The cardinal E passed him a glass full of what looked like a nutrient mix. “Annoying as it is to admit, this stuff is still the best thing to rehydrate and reenergize after a psychic burn.”

He thought of Ivy complaining about the lack of flavor in nutrient meals, knew she’d scrunch up her nose when he gave her the same kind of drink after she woke. Shifting to make sure she remained in his line of sight, he accepted the drink. The alpha couple had no reason to cause him harm, and he needed the energy boost.

“I think you should come to New York,” he said after finishing the glass. “Ivy’s mentioned several times that she wished you were nearby.”

Sascha glanced at Lucas. “That’s what we were just discussing.”

From the look on the other male’s face, a “discussion” wasn’t quite what they’d been having, but the leopard alpha kept his relaxed position against the counter, arms folded. “We’ll both be coming,” he said, “but only for a short period.”

“You don’t want to be away from your daughter.” Vasic knew they’d never bring a vulnerable innocent into a city in chaos.

Sascha leaned her head against Lucas’s shoulder, her mate’s arm going around her waist while her hand settled on his heart. Their movements were so unconscious Vasic wondered how many times they’d stood exactly this way. And he thought of how Ivy liked to tuck herself against him, the way he’d cradle the back of her head with one hand, his other arm around her. It . . . eased things in him to hold her, to know he had her trust. He could no longer exist without it.

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