At that moment, faced with a Max who was making no effort whatsoever to hide the steel of his nature, a Max who was forcing her to confront the truth of this strange, unexpected something between them, Sophia discovered she had another flaw—a hitherto unknown susceptibility to that tone in his voice. “I need to check if I sense you through the glove.” Reaching out before the fear could take over, make her turn back, she grazed the tips of her fingers across his palm.
His fingers curled inward even as she retreated—as if he’d hold her. “So?” A rough demand that rubbed the sandpaper deeper across her skin.
“I sense only your body heat.” Wild and hot and an invitation that made a sumptuous warmth ignite in her abdomen, the broken part of her craving more . . . and yet utterly terrified at taking this chance. “I’ll recite the alphabet,” she said, knowing he wouldn’t allow her to turn back, wouldn’t allow her to hide. “If I go quiet”—she tugged off a glove—“break contact.”
Max dropped his hand without warning. “Those eyes . . . the things I see in them.” A low, harsh word. “I promised myself I wouldn’t push you, and what the f**k am I doing but exactly that? Jesus.” He shoved his hands through his hair, his shoulders twisting as if he’d turn, walk away.
And she knew the decision was hers. To hide, to pull back before promise ever broke under the pressure of reality . . . or to defy fear and reach for a man who made her wish for something so impossible, it was surely a little piece of madness.
“I would know you, Max.” Soft words in a voice that had already become exquisitely, intimately familiar, gentle bonds that held Max in place. “Before . . . I would know you.” Closing the distance between them, Sophia waited until he lifted his hand . . . and then she stroked her fingers across the very center of his palm.
It was an electric shock that went straight to Max’s gut. Hissing out a breath, he curled his fingers into a fist even as she dropped her own hand and took a jerking step backward.
“Sophia?” Deep-seated instinct shoved at him to go to her, cup her face in his hands. Keeping himself in position was the hardest thing he’d ever done. “Are you in trouble?” It savaged him that he might have hurt her.
“No. I apologize—I’m fine.” But she was staring at his hand, a quaver in her voice. “I felt none of your memories. You’re as blank as a piece of wood.”
Relief was a f**king fist inside his chest. “I’ve been called hardheaded before, but never wooden.”
“I didn’t mean to offend.”
It was oh-so-tempting to touch his lips to hers, to tease her by telling her that she could make it up to him, but given the way she was standing so stiff and shocked, he knew he’d have to wait for his first taste of the lushly enticing Sophia Russo. “I was playing with you, Sophie.”
He flexed his hand, saw her eyes go to it. “You felt it, too, didn’t you?”
Shifting away in a sudden movement, she walked around him to open the door to her apartment. “I’ll see you tomorrow, Max.”
Sophia stood with her back to the door she’d closed behind Max until she heard his own door open and close. Only then did she slide down the wall to sit with her legs stretched out in front of her, her entire body buzzing in a way that was simply not in the realm of her experience.
She looked at her right hand, running the pad of her thumb over her fingertips in a bewildered attempt to understand that electrifying burst of sensation. It had been . . . she had no words for it, no way to explain something so wild, so extreme it defied her efforts at categorization.
The true paradox was that she hadn’t lied—no matter the almost painful sensation of the contact, Max was as silent to her psychic senses as a piece of wood or a block of plascrete.
For the first time in her life, that word meant something other than the conditioning that had acted as a cage even as it kept her alive. Max had been a wall of pure silence, an unexpected oasis in a world filled with noise. But her response to his touch had wiped out that startling peace.
She stared at her hand again. “I don’t understand.”
Max knew the answer, she thought, she’d seen it on his face. But the question was—did she want to know the answer?
A telepathic knock sounded in her mind the instant after that thought passed through it. Recognizing the signature of her boss in Justice, Jay Khanna, she pulled together the threads of her perfect facade and said, Sir. He wouldn’t guess at the reality of her condition. No one else ever had. Even the M-Psy saw only the fragmentation of her telepathic shields—to them, it was a simple psychic issue, nothing to do with the scars she wore deep inside, where no one could see them.
Ms. Russo, I need to go over part of the Valentine case with you.
Sophia waited. She’d long ago learned how to bury her true thoughts, her true self, in order to survive.
According to your notes, when you recovered Ms. Valentine’s memories, you saw her stab her husband seventeen times?
That’s correct, sir. A human-to-human spousal murder wouldn’t normally have merited J involvement, but Ms. Valentine was the daughter of an influential individual with a controlling interest in a major power plant. Valentine Senior had used the same thing Max had—a natural shield—to ruthless advantage in business, until even Psy “played nice” with him.
Sophia had often wondered why the Council hadn’t had him discreetly assassinated, and come to the conclusion that the male provided undisclosed goods or services that were valuable enough to afford him some protection. Humans, driven and shaped by their unpredictable emotional natures, often came up with ideas and concepts that were staggeringly unique. It was why Max had caught Gerard Bonner while the Psy profilers were still arguing about the “psychological parameters” that defined the sociopath.