"Yes." Her skin paled. "Lots of men. So many I can't remember their faces, much less their names. Too many for even my memory to handle."
Was she trying to hurt him on purpose? That she had the ability to do so enraged the leopard. Keeping that anger at bay only by dint of years of experience, he pushed off the car. "Why? You weren't like that."
"You knew me before puberty hit," she said, a tight bitterness to her tone. "Can we go now or would you like a blow-by-blow?"
"Get the hell in!"
Talin got in, conscious of a deep sense of self-loathing. She'd never intended for Clay to know the depths to which she had sunk, but it had been like someone else was controlling her mouth, as if some defiant part of her wanted him to know. Now he did. And whatever chance they had had, it was gone.
Talin couldn't blame him for his reaction. The counselor she had finally gone to for a short period after beginning her work for Shine, had assured her that her acting out as a teenager and as a young adult had been an understandable reaction, something often exhibited by victims of childhood abuse. The woman had classified it as a kind of self-harm, said there was no need for Talin to feel shame. But even after eight years of celibacy, except for -
No, she wouldn't think of those times. Her fists turned bloodless. It had been eight years since the final therapy session, eight years since she had begun to try to treat her body as something good, something worth holding precious, eight years...but Talin still wasn't sure she believed the counselor.
Maybe she was the slut Orrin had tried to make her. Maybe that defect was built into her genes. The clinic where she'd been abandoned as a baby had been a free one, utilized almost exclusively by prostitutes after all. Orrin had called her the daughter of a whore. Like mother, like daughter.
"Where's your apartment?"
Snapping upright at that cold question, she realized they had reached the outskirts of San Francisco. Lips dry, mouth full of cotton wool, she gave him directions to the small high-rise where Shine had leased her an apartment. "Thank you," she said when he parked on the street out front.
"Here." He threw her the key. A split second later, he had opened the door and was gone, a lethal shadow invisible against the rising fog. Eyes stinging, she shifted into the driver's seat and drove the Jeep down into the underground parking area.
Clay had been disgusted by her.
A sob caught in her throat as she sat in the dimly lit garage. Even when Clay had first discovered her grim childhood secret - only seconds before he'd killed Orrin - he had never looked at her with blame in his eyes. Instead, he had written her letters from juvie, telling her that she was still his Tally, still the best thing in his life. Those letters had gotten her through more years than Clay would ever know.
But now...now he blamed her for what she'd become. How could he not? He'd spent four years in a cage so she wouldn't have to live in a nightmare and what had she done? She'd spit on his gift, cheapened it to tawdriness. No wonder he hated her.
That she had been close to insane during those lost, tormented years didn't sound like a particularly good excuse.
Giving in, she pressed her head against the steering wheel and cried.
Ashaya Aleine was an M-Psy with a Gradient rating of 9.9. The latter made her very unusual. Most Psy that powerful tended to make the 0.1 leap into cardinal status. There was no measuring cardinals. Some were more powerful than others but all had the same eyes - white stars on black velvet.
Ashaya was neither. Her eyes were an unremarkable blue gray, her hair a plain black. It was curly but once pinned into a severe knot, it became forgettable. Her dark brown skin, too, was nothing surprising among the genetically mixed population of the Psy. But Psy weren't the only ones she had to consider. For her plan to succeed, she had to learn to become invisible among the humans and changelings, a far harder task.
The clear panel of her computer screen flashed an incoming call. She answered it to find herself facing a woman with almond-shaped eyes and ruler-straight black hair. "Councilor Duncan. What can I do for you?"
Nikita Duncan put down what appeared to be an electronic pen. "I'd like a progress report. How far along are you?" Her face was a static wall, a testament to perfect Silence.
"Back at the start." She remained as unmoving as the Councilor. "The saboteurs' attack on the previous lab destroyed the majority of my research." And her little twist in the programming of the prototype implants had taken care of those few that had been liberated from the lab without her consent.
"Nothing can be salvaged?"
"It may be possible," she admitted. "However, in my opinion, it would be more effective to start from the very beginning. There were errors in the earlier prototypes I was unable to pinpoint. If I restart with those errors in mind, I may be able to eradicate them."
"Of course." Nikita's dark eyes were unblinking. Like a snake's. It was an apt comparison, given that Nikita was reputed to possess the deadly ability to infect other minds with mental viruses - an excellent, untraceable way of getting rid of competitors. "When can the Council expect a full update?"
"I'll send one this week, but it will simply be a detailed reiteration of what I've already indicated."
"Understood. I'll wait for that report." Nikita clicked off.
Ashaya found nothing unusual in the Councilor's ready agreement. As the head M-Psy on the team dedicated to the implementation of Protocol I - also known as the Implant Protocol - Ashaya had complete autonomy over research and development.