He shuddered, bending his head so his forehead touched hers. “I’m afraid.” A stark admission. “What if it isn’t River? Or what if it is . . . and he doesn’t want to see me?”
“Why would he reject you?” Max had fought for his brother, tried to save him.
“I’ve always thought that he went down the wrong path partly because of the guilt he felt at the way our mother always treated us so differently.” River had been her golden child, Max the whipping boy. “I tried to shield him from it, but I couldn’t, not in the end.”
Sophia’s fingers twined with his on the sheets between them. “If this is your brother, if he’s the boy I saw in that flash of backsight, he cares for you to the depths of his soul.”
“Sometimes, that isn’t enough.” Max knew he sounded harsh, but it was the only way he could handle this. If he allowed it to matter, it would hurt too f**king much. “I wouldn’t blame him if he doesn’t want to be reminded of the past.”
Sophia squeezed his hand, leaving the decision up to him, those violet eyes warm with an intense, unbreakable loyalty.
In the end, there was only one thing he could do, his love for his tormented, damaged younger brother stronger and far more tenacious than the fear that sought to hold him back. Picking up his cell, he made the call—the conversation with the professor took less than a minute, with the elderly man promising to pass on Max’s details to this River who might be his brother. Hanging up, Max released a long breath and drew the scent of Sophia into his lungs.
The temptation to curl up around her and just forget the world was almost overwhelming, but the cop in him wouldn’t settle. He’d taken an oath, made a promise. “I should let you rest,” he said to the woman who was trying so hard to make sure he had a family, “but . . . want to come on a stakeout?” His anger at being helpless in the face of her failing shields threatened to make him bitter, but he fought the ugliness, refusing to taint the beauty of this strange, beautiful joy between a cop and his J.
Sophia’s face lit up with an almost childish pleasure. “Really? Yes!”
And he knew he’d do anything in his power to keep that light in her eyes.
“Okay,” he said once he’d checked in with the manhunt team—no sightings, no information to help him narrow the search grid, his frustration as acute as theirs—and they were on their way through the darkening city, “word is, some Psy are having secretive meetings around town. No one knows why.”
“We’re going to observe one of these covert meetings?”
“Yes. Clay’s informants say it’s pretty certain the place we’re heading to will be the gathering point tonight.” The leopard changeling had sent through the message earlier. “For now—we’re just going to watch, see if we can get an idea of what’s going on, gauge if it might be connected to the Nikita situation.”
Not that long afterward, Max brought the car to a stop in the exclusive Pacific Heights neighborhood, parking between two other similar black sedans. This particular street was a historical landmark, maintained much as it had been in the early twentieth century, the trims on the graceful Queen Anne-style homes decorative, the colors distinctive even in the muted light.
“This is exciting,” Sophia said, wide-eyed, just as the streetlights sensed the approaching night and switched themselves on.
Max bit the inside of his cheek. “Yeah, and don’t think I take all my dates on stakeouts. You’re special.” Such an impossibly simple statement to describe the depth of what he felt for her.
“I’m flattered.” A husky chuckle. “Oh—I may have discovered what was bothering you about Quentin Gareth’s file—I meant to tell you after you got off the comm, but we got . . . distracted.”
Max’s body purred at the thought of that distraction. “Still feeling tender?”
Reaching out, he closed his hand over her thigh, gave a little squeeze. “So?”
“Yes.” He could hear the blush. Then she said, “Are you erect?”
Hell. “I should know better than to tease you.” Grinning, even as he shifted to ease the pounding erection she’d brought to life, he said, “So, Quentin Gareth?”
“Has a well-hidden discrepancy in his early records. It says he went to an Ivy League college from age eighteen to twenty-three, and he did. However, he wasn’t actually at college for six months of his final year—he enrolled in no classes, took no exams.
“When I dug deeper, I discovered he’d won a place in some kind of work experience program.” She touched her fingers to the hand he had on her thigh, rubbing her thumb over his knuckles. “There’s nothing inherently suspicious in that, but the fact that he hid it instead of putting it on his CV tells me he either did so badly during the program that he wants it gone from his work history—”
“—or,” Max completed, “he’s got a secret he doesn’t want us to uncover. Where was he posted?”
“That’s the thing. There’s no record whatsoever of where he spent those six months.”
Max caught something with his peripheral vision. “Stay relaxed,” he said to Sophia. “It’s dark enough that they won’t be able to see us.” Though the streetlight in front of the target home made their quarry very visible.
Two men and one woman walked up from the other side of the street, entering the house after a quick knock. Two more women, middle-aged this time, followed. The sixth attendee was a much older man, his hair in tight gray curls.