Wild Embrace (Psy-Changeling #15.5) - Nalini Singh Page 0,1

froze. “What?” she asked, tilting back her head to look up at him, his scent in her every inhale.

Stefan always smelled crisp, clean, distant. No grease on his cheek and certainly no dirty work coveralls. On duty or off, he always wore the uniform of the station commander, the collar of his military-style fitted jacket rising partway up his neck and fastened to the side by a simple silver stud that denoted his rank. Everything else was stark black, from his boots to his pants to, she assumed, the shirt he wore under his jacket. She didn’t know, had never seen him with the jacket open.

Now his dark gray eyes focused on her. “It is not there.”

Disappointment uncurled in a leaden wave in her stomach, wiping away her surprise at his touch. “Are you sure?”

“I checked all the return addresses on the letters and packages.”

She swallowed, nodded. “Why?”

“Because every time the mail comes and your package doesn’t arrive, you give in to the human failing of disappointment, which leads to at least two days of depression during which you don’t function at optimum levels.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Ah, so it was concern for my well-being, then?” She snorted and tried to shrug off his hand. “I function perfectly fine—everything gets done, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.” He didn’t release her. “But you have a tendency to snap at anyone who comes near you.”

“What do you care?” she asked, feeling cornered and sad and angry at him for being the bearer of news she didn’t want to hear. “Emotion makes no difference to you.”

“The humans and changelings care.”

That made her face heat up. Stefan ran the show, contracted to manage Alaris at what had to be an exorbitant fee. If he said people were complaining because she got a little down a couple of days a month, then people were complaining. “It won’t happen again.”

“Of course it will. Unless you stop waiting for a package that will never arrive.”

It was a stab to her soul, a blade made of ice that broke inside her as she bled. “Let me go.” Wrenching herself out of his hold, she walked quietly out of the control room and headed down into the true guts of Alaris, where no one else ever ventured. Only when she was sure he hadn’t followed her did she curl up in a corner and put her head on her knees.

No tears.

Tazia had stopped crying a long time ago. But the sadness was a crushing weight, a brick on her heart. She’d truly believed that the passage of time would soften her parents’ anger, bring forgiveness. But it had been five years since she’d walked out on her arranged marriage, and still her family shunned her.

A year ago, when she’d won a place on Alaris’s first mission team, she’d written to them. It was an honor to be on the deep-sea station. Surely they would forgive her now that she’d brought such acclaim to the Nerif name, now that she’d become more than the daughter who had not followed the wishes of her elders.

The first month on board, she hadn’t been too disappointed at the lack of a response. Her parents lived in a remote region of desert and wind, a region their people had chosen to keep deliberately untouched by technology except that which was needed to assure the safety of the settlement. They also didn’t believe in wasting money on costly transportation when other, more economical methods were readily available. Their reply would come slowly, via camelback until it reached the nearest major city.

The second month, she’d told herself there must’ve been a storm to delay things. That happened at times, the wind howling across the desert to create sand devils that could strip the skin right off anyone unlucky enough to be caught in the center of one.

The third month, she’d blamed it on her name. People were always getting her mixed up with Nazia, who worked on Alaris’s surface base. No doubt Nazia would forward the letter with the next mail drop.

The fourth month, a knot grew in her stomach.

And kept growing.

A year and still no reply, no message. She would’ve worried about their well-being, but she knew they were safe. She still had one friend in the village. Busy with two young children, a demanding husband, and elderly in-laws—and utterly delighted to be in the center of that cheerful chaos—Mina wrote to Tazia when she could, gave her the news.

Tazia’s brother had found a “pretty and shy” bride, his