She was so fascinated by the disarming glimpse of embarrassment that she blurted out a need so deep, it would ravage her if he refused. “I would rather you not respond to any such invitations while we are . . .”
His gaze met hers, his attention so total that she felt as if she was in the sights of some great bird of prey. “While we are?” he prompted when she didn’t continue.
She’d come this far, couldn’t go back now. He knew about the otherness, about the cold justice she’d delivered to those who’d hurt society’s most vulnerable, and he hadn’t turned away—she was still too terrified to ask him why, but it gave her the courage to say, “While we are learning each other.”
“Learning each other,” Max repeated, as if measuring the words. “And will you let me in, Sophie?”
“Yes.” Something stirred deep within her, something that was at once dark . . . and lonely. Unutterably, absolutely lonely. “Be with me, Max.” Saying that was the hardest thing she’d ever done—it felt akin to tearing out her heart and placing it at his feet . . . and hoping, just hoping, that he wouldn’t crush it.
Max didn’t say anything for several long moments. When he did speak, his voice seemed to have dropped an octave. “Do you know what you’re asking, what I’ll demand of you?”
The tiny hairs on her arms stood up at the leashed intensity of the question. “Yes.”
Max picked up a piece of tempura, but instead of putting it on her plate, lifted it to her lips. His eyes held a silent challenge. And Sophia found her bone-deep vulnerability retreating under a wave of determination—Detective Max Shannon was not going to disconcert her so easily. She parted her lips and took a bite. Eating the other half—a shocking intimacy—he returned his attention to her face. To her mouth. “Won’t whatever you experience spill out into the PsyNet?”
“It’s a risk, yes,” Sophia admitted, feeling her lips turn dry, her throat seeming to swell. “However, like all Js, my PsyNet shields are airtight, so the risk is acceptable. Even if there is a leak, any irregularities will be attributed to my disintegration as a functioning J, rather than to such a blatant breach of Silence.”
His lips thinned. “And once those irregularities become too strong, you’ll be taken away to be retuned.”
“Reconditioned,” she corrected automatically. Part of her wanted to tell him the final truth—that her chances had run out, that their relationship would accelerate her disintegration . . . and that she’d choose a fugitive’s death before allowing her personality to be erased, her memories of Max scrubbed away to leave her a hollow shell.
But if she shared that, he’d never agree to her request, this man who looked at her as if she mattered, as if she was worth protecting. And she needed him to agree—the hunger inside of her, it was so vast, so endless, so dark and cold, she didn’t know how she’d borne it this long. “I’ve survived reconditioning a number of times.” When he didn’t say anything, she rubbed her damp palms on her thighs. “Max?”
Max heard the well-hidden tremor, the touch of vulnerability, and had to force himself to keep from soothing away her worry. Because that would be a lie. He was well and truly hooked on Sophia—but no matter how easy he was with others, how laid-back, he’d never be that way with this woman he was coming to consider his. No, with her, he might play—would play—but he’d also push and demand and take. And she needed to understand that.
Making a decision, he stood and walked around to brace his hands on the table on either side of her, his breath stirring the tiny curls just above her ear. He saw her hands clench on her thighs, the scent of her a mix of vanilla, lavender, and something a little wilder, uniquely her own, a flower that had never known the hand of man. “Be sure, Sophie.” Today, this minute, he might possibly be capable of walking away. But if he touched her, if he claimed her . . . there’d be no going back.
Sophia’s answer was immediate. “I am sure.”
But he saw the strained angle of her jaw, the taut line of her body. “Are you?” When she remained stiff within the bracket of his arms, he drew in a deep breath . . . and let go of the reins. “If we do this today, if you accept me, then you take me as I am.” He forced himself to give her one final chance, though the need to take her at her word, to finally taste the temptation that was Sophia Russo, was a pounding beat in every cell of his body. “I won’t be controllable, and I sure as hell won’t do only what you ask of me.” He brushed the shell of her ear with his lips.
Sophia sucked in breath.
“Okay?” he murmured—he’d challenge, coax, seduce, but he wouldn’t hurt her. Never would he hurt her.
A jerky nod. “But I need space.” She went as if to stand up.
He kept her in place by the simple expedient of remaining in position. “Like I said, baby—we do this, you’ll have to let go, trust me.” He let his lips stroke over the tip of her ear again, felt her tremble.
So sensitive, so exquisitely sensitive.
But no pushover.
“I may be fractured,” she said in blunt response, “but I am not a submissive personality.”
He felt his lips curve, delighted. “Did I say I wanted a submissive? I just want to make sure you don’t expect one either.”
“Do you know how I see you?” A husky question. “As a tiger who has decided to behave for the time being—I’m not stupid enough to attempt to leash you.”