“Most Psy have a single link to the Net deep within their mind, and the defectors must have cut that link to leave, but anchors are woven into the PsyNet’s very fabric by millions upon millions of fine connections.” The Net was both safety and a steel cage. “If I tried to leave, death would be instantaneous—but that’s not the worst part. Because of the particular way I’m integrated into its framework, part of me, my memories, my personality, is anchored in the Net.”
Max put down his fork, appetite gone. “You’re saying you’ll effectively rehabilitate yourself if you try to leave.”
Max wasn’t sure he believed that. From what he could tell, Silence was a form of brainwashing. And what better way to ensure compliance than by convincing someone they couldn’t leave the Net?
“You think I’ve been blinded to the truth.”
It didn’t surprise him anymore, that she was able to read him with such ease. “You’ve been in that world your whole life. It’s hard to see what’s right in front of you sometimes.” He’d spent his childhood pretending his mother loved him. It had been necessary for his survival, but it had been a willful blindness. In Sophia’s case, it was more likely a conditioned response.
But she shook her head, her eyes bleak. “Js are, by the nature of our work, far more aware of the harsh realities of life than other Psy. I’ve looked at the issue from every angle, and the unavoidable fact is that once integrated in such a complex way, a mind cannot physically disengage—even if I somehow survived the physical brain damage, the person who remained wouldn’t be Sophia Russo.”
Cold spread through his veins, but he wasn’t about to give up. “Are you going to tell me how you developed the ability to merge with the Net, why you’re so inexorably tied to it?” He’d heard something in her words when she’d spoken of it, a slight hesitation that pricked at his instincts.
She put down her own fork. “Can we sit nearer to each other?”
His gut clenched at the polite way she’d asked for comfort—ready for rejection. Always so ready to be rejected. He wondered if she was even aware of it, but he was, and it savaged him to realize how badly she’d been hurt. “Yeah. Let me clear the table first.”
“I’ll help you. We may as well wash them so that we can concentrate on the case later on.” It was as she was drying a dish—having replaced her gloves—that Max couldn’t stand the painful quietness of her any longer. Moving behind her, he pressed a kiss to the curve of her neck.
She dropped the dish.
“Got it.” Placing the unbroken item on the counter in front of her, he pushed back and forced himself to head to the coffeemaker, though he wanted only to wrap his arms around her and hold her tight, so tight. “Something to drink?”
Sophia answered without thought. “Yes.” Hands still trembling, she watched as he poured a single cup of coffee, then heated up a mug of milk. She wanted to touch her fingers to her neck, to feel the echo of his kiss, the slight rasp of his unshaven jaw against her skin.
“Come here.” A quiet command, eyes that drew her forward.
Closing the small distance between them, she parted her lips to ask for another kiss—driven by her need to be with him—when he took the spoon he’d been using to stir a dark mix into the milk and put it to her lips. “Taste.”
It was impossible to do anything else. The burst of sensation was sharp, almost bitter, exquisite in its richness. She put her hand on his wrist when he would’ve withdrawn the spoon, the feel of him solid and tempting under her glove.
Shaking his head in a gentle tease, Max drew away the spoon, slow, so slow. “The whole cup’s for you.” Then he leaned forward and kissed her, licking his tongue over the seam of her lips as if to steal the flavor.
She gripped his T-shirt as the floor disappeared from beneath her. Groaning, Max pulled back—but only after grazing her lower lip with his teeth. Liquid warmth pooled between her thighs, making her body clench.
“Take your chocolate”—an order in a voice gone sandpaper rough—“and go sit before I give in to temptation and unbutton your cardigan, put my hands on your beautiful br**sts.”
He turned away even as she tried to process the searing sensuality of that image. The idea of those strong, clever hands on her flesh, that sleek hair brushing over her as he bent closer . . . How did women survive such vicious cravings? Holding the chocolate he’d made for her, she watched her cop’s T-shirt stretch across his shoulders as he raised his arm to put the mix back into an upper cabinet.
He was beautiful.
And he’d given her the right to touch him. Even mad, he wouldn’t push her away, wouldn’t reject her as imperfect.
Not giving herself a chance to change her mind, she put down the mug, closed the distance between them, and wrapped her arms around him from behind, resting her cheek against his back.
The masculine fire of him soaked through her skin, a near-painful bite. “When I began to show J tendencies as a child,” she said, holding on, holding tight, “I was placed in a residential facility with other telepaths who needed specialized training.”
Max’s hands closed over her gloved ones, but he didn’t turn, letting her use his body as a shield against the dark that had never set her free. “Someone hurt you there.” His voice was jagged, his muscles rigid.
“We were in a remote location,” she said, finding courage in his strength. “Because young telepaths, especially those with unusual abilities, tend to have trouble with shields, it’s easier to train us out of the cities.” Practical words, but the other half of her, the half that had been born that summer two decades ago, clung to the solid wall of Max, afraid, so very afraid. “So there was no one to notice that our instructor was beginning to act beyond Silence. Like Bonner.”