“Oh?” Leaning down, he closed his teeth gently over the same spot.
And Sophia saw stars.
They were met at DarkRiver’s city HQ by the leopard alpha himself. Lucas Hunter was obviously not pleased to find his mate in the crosshairs of an investigation, but he said nothing except, “Max, Ms. Russo,” before showing them up to the meeting room.
Entering, Sophia tried not to stare at the woman seated on the other side of the round table. But that proved impossible. The image on the screen hadn’t done Sascha Duncan justice. Not only did she bear the startling night-sky eyes of a cardinal—white stars on a sweep of black velvet—she was beyond beautiful, her face holding a glow that didn’t seem real.
“This is Sophia,” Max said to Sascha, his fingers pressing lightly on Sophia’s lower back.
Her clothing did nothing to mute the impact of his touch, the tiny hairs on her arms rising up in vivid response. “Ms. Duncan,” she somehow managed to say.
“Please call me Sascha.” Glancing up, the cardinal Psy touched her fingers to Lucas’s as her mate walked around to stand by her side, his hand on her shoulder. Something unseen passed between them, because the leopard alpha angled his head in a move that was very feline, before saying, “Take a seat,” and folding his own body into a chair beside his mate.
“Sophie.” Max pulled out a chair, taking his own after she’d seated herself. “I’ll be upfront with you both,” he said to the DarkRiver couple, one arm braced on the table. “Sascha, you were in the Duncan building this morning in the apartment across from an Edward Chan.”
Lucas leaned back in his chair in a seemingly casual pose . . . except that his eyes weren’t quite human—Sophia could see an areola of gold around the green, as if the leopard was simply waiting for an excuse to get out.
“What’re you getting at Max?” A question that held a warning.
“Just doing my job,” Max said easily. So easily you could’ve almost overlooked the fact that he was holding Lucas’s gaze with unflinching confidence.
Dominance, she thought, it was all about dominance with males.
“Lucas,” Sascha murmured, and Sophia saw the other woman’s shoulder muscles shift in a way that meant she had, in all probability, placed her hand on her mate’s thigh. An intimate gesture between male and female, one she knew Max would allow her . . . and not another woman, no matter who she was. Not now. A strange new thing unfurled inside of her, tight and hot and determined.
“Yes, I was there,” Sascha said to Max, even as Sophia fought the urge to push herself, to stroke Max, feel his muscles bunch under her touch. “I went to speak to Marsha Langholm.”
“The thing is”—Max’s tone was gentler than Sophia had ever heard it—“Edward Chan was murdered in the room across from Langholm’s while you were in there with her.”
Sascha’s eyes went wide, her distress open. “Oh, God. That explains it.”
Lucas ran a soothing hand along Sascha’s spine. “Shh, kitten. Don’t let it stress you out.”
“I’m okay—it was just the shock of it.” Taking several deep breaths, she looked straight at them. “How much do you know about my abilities?”
Max glanced at Sophia, and she took that as a cue to answer. “They say you can sense emotion, heal wounds of the heart. There are rumors you’re an E, a designation that doesn’t exist.”
“Oh, it exists,” Sascha said with a firmness at odds with the incredible warmth of her presence. “I’m an empath, not a particularly useful thing in the Net under Silence. But that doesn’t matter—only two things matter. One—I couldn’t murder anyone, not without it rebounding back on me. I’d feel the impact of the victim’s death, and I’m fairly certain it would kill me. Nikita can verify that for you.”
Sophia found herself believing Sascha. There was just something about the other woman that made her want to believe. If all Es motivated the same response, then it might go toward explaining why their designation had been buried—they were a threat, because they inspired loyalty without the fear that was the Council’s favorite weapon. “You said two reasons,” she prompted in a tone that held genuine respect. “What’s the second?”
“I think I felt him die.” It was a whisper. “It was just before I left Marsha’s room. I felt a wave of nausea, then everything went black—I thought I was going to faint. But it passed within seconds, so I put it down to getting up too quickly from the sofa.” She leaned into her mate’s embrace—Lucas’s face was set in lines of savage protectiveness, but he held her with open tenderness. “Poor Edward. He always worked so hard.”
“Sascha.” Max’s tone was oddly careful as he said, “Did you see or hear anything that might help? I’ve got a gap of ninety critical minutes in the security footage.”
“No.” Frown lines marred her brow. “The rooms are all soundproofed, and I was intent on my conversation with Marsha. We were together the whole time except when I got up to go to the bathroom.” Those extraordinary eyes met Max’s. “I’m the last person who’d hurt anyone.”
Max thrust a hand through his hair. “Look,” he said in the tone of a man who’d made a decision. “I think it’s about time you know what’s going on.” A searing glance out of those near-black eyes. “Sophie, it might be better for you to leave the room.”