Even as she spoke, there was a mental knock on her mind. “Someone’s seen,” she said, before answering the telepathic contact. Sir.
Jay Khanna’s psychic voice was clear, direct, his telepathic reach close to 9.8 on the Gradient. That reach had given rise to speculation that the reason Khanna had been taken off the active roster at an early age was because the Council had other uses for his telepathy. Ms. Russo, he said now, there’s been a significant change in your shields. Do you need assistance?
It was a thinly veiled query about whether her conditioning was close to total collapse. If she said yes, she’d be picked up for emergency reconditioning—and find herself undergoing total and comprehensive rehabilitation, her memories of Max scrubbed away, her mind broken until it was nothing but an empty shell.
Silently thanking the M-Psy who’d told her the truth about her status, she said, My shields appear to have evolved to provide better protection.
Shields do not evolve.
No, she thought, they didn’t. I misspoke, sir. I’ve been working with the idea of this type of a shield for a while—they simply went into effect before I planned. It was a reasonable response—all Js tinkered constantly with their shields in an effort to eke out another day, another hour of life.
Khanna accepted her explanation, his tone retaining its professionalism as he switched topics. Have you reviewed the Valentine file?
And your conclusions?
Very well. Continue with your current assignment.
Ending the telepathic conversation, Sophia sagged against Max, telling him what had occurred. Max moved the hand he had on her abdomen, inciting a strange twisting sensation in her body. It wasn’t painful. No, it was . . . interesting. “What else is up?” he asked.
“Your expression changed toward the end.”
She thought about what her boss had asked her to do, thought, too, what it would mean to share that with Max. He’d know. What she’d done. The lines she’d crossed. Pain rippled down her spine. “I don’t want to tell you,” she said, incapable of any sophisticated evasion when it came to this man.
To her surprise, Max squeezed her h*ps and said, “Keep your secrets”—his voice an intimate darkness in her ear—“for now.”
Max felt Sophia’s hand tighten on his, wanted only to bend his head even farther and put his mouth on the unsteady beat of her pulse, suck hard. The possessive urge, the violent need to claim her to the core was a gnawing ache in his gut. He wanted the world to know she was his—make certain no one would dare lay a finger on her.
It took every ounce of will he had to fight the craving and lead her to the bar stools on this side of the kitchen counter. Dropping her hand, he put both of his around her waist and lifted her onto a stool.
Her hands flew to his shoulders. Gripped.
A sweep of black erased her irises between one blink and the next.
“Sophie.” He squeezed her waist. “Stay with me.”
“I’m right here.”
“Oh.” She blinked, but the black remained. “It happens when we utilize a strong burst of psychic power, or . . . I suppose”—a wash of color across her cheekbones—“feel an intense emotional response.”
The maleness in him smiled in sensual satisfaction. “I like the sound of that.” Leaning forward, he slicked his lips over her own, a tease that made his c**k throb—but conscious of how far he’d already pushed her, he was on the other side of the counter before she exhaled and swiveled to face him.
“That,” she said, “was . . . interesting.” Her chest rose and fell in long, deep breaths, her skin colored with a heat that invited a man’s mouth.
The excruciating pulse of his body, the unremitting hunger, might’ve consumed him if he hadn’t had something critically important in mind for this evening. “Let me finish making this sauce,” he said, voice rough with sexual desire. “You want to shred the lettuce for the salad?”
He waited until she’d washed her hands and retaken her seat before asking the question to which he needed an answer before he could begin to work out how to engineer her defection, how to keep her forever. “Sophia—I’ve been patient.” His hand fisted, because he knew this truth would be nothing good, but at least he’d have a starting point. “Tell me where Js go when they stop working.”
A quiet, quiet moment. “Some who are removed from the active roster early enough take up desk jobs in Justice,” she said in a voice so soft he had to strain to hear her, “others go insane, and the rest of us . . . we die.”
Max staggered, bracing his hands on the counter. “Tell me.”
“My Sensitivity”—she glanced back at her discarded gloves—“is a result of failing telepathic shields. They’re so thin now that when they shear, the thoughts of every man, woman, and child in this city will smash into my brain, crush my mind.”
The brutal forecast had Max clenching his jaw. “How long?”
Anger—hot, protective, violent—was a rush of white noise in his ears. “When were you planning to tell me?”
Sophia swallowed at the tautly held fury in that question. “I’m sorry.” It hurt her to see him so angry with her. “I thought if you knew how . . . broken I truly was, you wouldn’t want me.”
“Sophie.” A low, dark word, a shake of his head that made the sleek black strands of his hair catch the light. “They’ll rehabilitate you if they find out how close you are to the edge, that’s the bottom line?”