Sophia jerked forward without warning. “Is that who I think it is?”
The individual who’d caught her attention paused on the steps of the house, glancing around as if conscious of being watched.
“Son of a bitch,” Max murmured as Ryan Asquith shifted on his heel and walked inside.
Councilor Kaleb Krychek was just getting into his car for the drive to his office in Moscow when he felt it. A telepathic ricochet. Catching the returning tracker with a psychic hand, he leaned against the vehicle. He had thousands of these invisible psychic constructs scattered throughout the Net, all of them primed to scan through billions upon billions of bytes for data for one name.
This was the first one that had returned since he began his search six years, five months, and three weeks ago.
He was careful with the old and fragile construct, not wanting to lose what it had brought back to him. It took him almost ten minutes to penetrate the layers of his own security—and then, there it was. That name, linked to information that had passed through a distant part of the Net two weeks ago. The information was fragmented, the trail would be difficult if not impossible to pick up, but that mattered little at this point.
Because at last, he had confirmation that his quarry was alive.
I’m writing this as you sleep beside me, your breathing easy, the lines of stress smoothed away—and I don’t know how to describe what I feel for you. I don’t have those words. It hurts, this emotion in my heart, this inexorable ache.
—Sophia Russo in an encrypted and time-coded letter to
be sent to Max Shannon after her death
Sophia lay in bed the next morning, her limbs loose and her body utterly sated. So, this was what pleasure felt like, she thought in wonder. This was what poets wrote about and artists painted. This was why humans gave each other secret smiles and changelings murmured in their mates’ ears.
The bathroom door opened to reveal a tiled enclosure full of steam just as Morpheus jumped onto the bed and padded around to sit right up against her abdomen. She took the hint, stroking his solid form. “You shower in water far too hot for you,” she said to the beautifully muscled male who walked out from the heat and headed to where he’d thrown a change of clothes last night.
After they’d seen Ryan enter that stately Queen Anne, she and Max had decided she should return home, tear apart Ryan’s file. Her cop had called up a white-blond changeling male named Dorian to drop her home, while he’d stayed on Ryan until close to three a.m., leaving only when his friend Clay had arrived to take the watch for a few hours. She’d heard him return home, heard him confer with the manhunt team for over half an hour.
“Looks like Bonner’s parents provided him with access to a private jet,” he’d said to her when he stumbled into bed. “Bastard could be anywhere. I’ve alerted the local airports, let the cats know.” He’d gone straight to sleep after that . . . but woken an hour ago with more than enough energy to make her gasp.
“You’ll boil,” she said, as another wave of steam escaped the bathroom.
An unrepentant wink. “Heat is good for you.” Towel hitched around his lean waist and hair damp, he looked young, incredibly approachable.
A rumble against her palm as Morpheus began to purr. “I was thinking about calling Quentin Gareth’s college.” Having discovered nothing incriminating in Asquith’s files, she was staying behind today to sort through the PsyNet data she’d cached—in the hopes of unearthing something that might tie Pure Psy directly to the attacks on Nikita’s people. “But if he has alerts set in place, it could tip him off.”
“Hold off on that,” Max said, throwing the towel on the bed. “I might be able to get the information another way.”
The intimacy of watching him dress was a tightness in her chest. “Come back to me, Max,” she said quietly.
“How could I resist?” A solemn look, a kiss that held emotion that made her soul ache. “You’re holding my heart hostage.”
Ten minutes later and far too soon, Max walked to the door, with her behind him. “I’ll be on the phone to the manhunt team throughout the day, too, so leave a message if you can’t get through and I’ll call back.” Reaching out, he tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear. “Building security has Bonner’s image—they know not to let him up to you under any circumstances.
“Enforcement’s on alert, and Clay’s also put the word out among DarkRiver’s network of informants.” A squeeze of her hip. “If you go out—and I’d rather you didn’t—don’t forget to take one of the security guys with you. Or better yet, call me, and if I can’t get away, I’ll call DarkRiver, organize a leopard escort for you.”
Remembering the warped arousal she’d read in Bonner during the Gwyn Hayley scan, Sophia hugged her arms around herself, the tiny hairs on her body rising in primitive warning. “I plan to stay in.” Being outside in the general population was becoming more and more unbearable. “And I won’t be entering the PsyNet, so don’t worry about that either.”
He touched his lips to her temple. “How are you?” A rough question that held a thousand unsaid things.
She placed her hand over his heart, soaked in the incredible gift of his presence. “Still here.” But her telepathic shields were so thin that any touch by an unstable personality could perforate them.
A hard kiss. “I’ll check up on you every hour. Don’t even try to stop me.”