The elevator opened at that moment. A woman entered the lobby at almost the same instant, swiping a card where Sophia had entered Vale’s access code. “Please hold the elevator.”
Max did so, conscious of Sophia all but disappearing into a corner.
“Thanks.” The woman’s ruby red smile betrayed her humanity. “Are you moving in? I haven’t seen you before.”
Max saw the stranger give him the once-over, recognized it for what it was. Women had been making him offers since before he was legal. And he’d learned to turn them down without hurting their feelings—because in spite of the actions of the woman who’d shaped him, he’d never hated her or those of her sex. Part of him had always wanted to protect her—even as a child, he’d known that no matter what she did to him, her pain was deeper, older, a vicious animal that tore her to pieces from the inside out.
So today, he gave this woman a small smile. “Just checking the place out.”
“Well,” she said as the elevator opened on her floor, “if you want to ask any questions about the area, call me.” Passing over a card, she exited, her musky perfume a lingering reminder of her presence.
Sophia stirred. “She was playing a mating game with you.”
Max had been about to drop the card into the small wrought iron recycling bin in the corner, but now slid it into his pocket. If it took jealousy to rouse the real Sophia to the surface, he’d use it without any guilt whatsoever—when a man got kicked this hard in the guts by a woman, anything was fair.
And the unique individual behind the mask of the perfect J, the one who’d told him Bonner’s victims shouldn’t have to spend eternity in the cold dark—that’s who he wanted to know. “It’s called flirting.” He shot her a slow, deliberately provocative smile. “I’m sure you must’ve seen humans do it before.”
“Is that the physical type that attracts you?” Aware she should back off, but unable to stop pushing for an answer, Sophia stepped out of the elevator on Vale’s floor. “Tall, slender, with a fashionable-dress preference?”
Max gestured to the left of the quiet, carpeted corridor. “That’s his place.” Letting her pass him so she could input the code that would disengage the locks, he pushed open the door. “And,” he said in a voice that made the tiny hairs on the back of her nape rise in warning as she walked in ahead of him, “the answer to your question is no. That woman didn’t do it for me.” He pushed the door shut behind them. “Now a small woman with dangerous curves . . . I could bite into her.”
She froze, certain she was misreading the comment, but suddenly very conscious of the way her lower body filled out her jeans. “Detective Shannon,” she said, turning to face him, “you’re being highly inappropriate.”
His lips kicked up at the corners. “You started it.”
She wanted to trace the shape of those lips, wanted it so badly her fingers cramped as she fisted them. Her Silence had been fragmenting for years—an inevitable side effect of her work as a J, and one for which the J Corps had a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. So long as the medics didn’t find any evidence, the J Corps Management Board wouldn’t turn in a fractured J. It was partly an economic decision in order to retain the number of active Js . . . and partly because everyone in the Corps had looked into the chasm of madness at some point in their lives.
Though Sophia hadn’t allowed herself to think about the truth even within her own mind, conscious of how deep M-Psy could dig, her conditioning had broken close to completely earlier this year, her mind twined with strange, dark tendrils that rebuffed Silence; and the reconditioning she’d undergone only the previous day had already been sloughed off like so much dead skin. But in spite of it all, she’d been able to hold up the facade, the pretense of being the perfect Psy. Until now.
“Breathe, Sophia.” A husky order, and to her surprise, he took a step back, began to walk around Vale’s living area. “This room is set up for entertaining—or maybe meetings, since I’m guessing Psy don’t do parties?”
She forced her brain to function, to provide him with the answers. “Actually,” she said, the words coming sluggishly as she fought the confusion created by his mere presence, “cocktail parties are held when there are human or changeling clients. It’s all about putting the other side at ease.”
Some Psy could even manage a glacial kind of charm—Councilor Kaleb Krychek had an unusual number of admirers in the non-Psy population. She couldn’t understand why. Yes, aesthetically speaking, he was the epitome of a cold male beauty. But he was also, she was certain, quite capable of snapping his admirers’ necks without the least pause should the occasion call for it.
“Do you know if Vale received business clients in here outside of any social events?” Max’s expression was all cop when she dared meet his gaze again. Yet, embers continued to burn in the depths of those near-black eyes. He made no effort to hide them, no effort to pretend that things were as they should’ve been between an Enforcement detective and a Silent J.
“It’s possible.” Could Max share that warmth, she wondered, thaw the frost in her soul, frost that had begun to form when she’d been a traumatized eight-year-old strapped helpless to a hospital bed? Could he fix her? “Some humans don’t like to be seen consorting with Psy.” It was a question—vital, necessary, powerful—couched as a statement.