So now, dog-tired but determined, he stood outside the door while she sat a dangerously short distance away from a woman who had the ability to kill without remorse, without pity. But Nikita Duncan was also a woman who understood business, understood how to weigh costs against benefits. Sophia met her gaze. “I need a job.”
“You’re a J.”
“Js have very short life spans.”
Almond-shaped eyes filled with speculation. “I am missing several advisors as you’re aware, but unlike Detective Shannon, you have no skills I can utilize.”
“I have contacts across the Net.” Js saw everything. And they talked to each other, because only another J understood the broken pieces within them. “As the situation with Quentin Gareth proved, you have a critical gap in your organization. I can fill a large part of it, organize a team that will round out the other aspects.”
Nikita leaned back in her chair. “Is Detective Shannon part of the deal?”
“No.” Sophia held the Councilor’s gaze. “To be quite blunt, you don’t want him working for you if he doesn’t want to be here.”
“No.” Nikita was silent for several minutes. “Can you be discreet about your unorthodox relationship with him?”
Shock held Sophia silent for several seconds. Scrambling to make sense of the question, she decided to alter the plan and take the biggest gamble of her life, one that could put her back on the rehabilitation watchlist. “Yes, in public. However, I plan to marry him.”
Again, Nikita didn’t react as predicted. “Do it in private, file the legal paperwork through the slowest court system you can find—as a J, you should know precisely which one will fit the definition. Under no circumstance can anything you experience leak out into the Net. If it does, the Arrows will strike.”
“My shields are impregnable.” Sophia looked at the Councilor, suddenly aware that she had more of a capacity to understand this powerful woman than most. The darkness in her recognized the same in Nikita. “What’s happening?”
“Change.” Nikita rose to her feet, walked to the plate-glass wall that looked out over the city. “But change takes time, and always claims victims.”
Sophia wouldn’t ever again be a victim. “I will never like you,” she said to the Councilor’s back. “But I will never lie to you either. I think you could do with an advisor who’s not afraid of you.”
“Normal Psy do not feel.”
Sophia said nothing. Not on that. “I’ve thought and thought about why you might’ve asked for me on this assignment, and I can only come up with one answer.” And it was an answer beyond Silence, an answer to do with mothers and daughters, redemption and forgiveness. “But I can’t make myself believe it. Not of you.”
Nikita took five long minutes to respond. “Pick up the standard employment contract on your way out. And Ms. Russo?”
“You should be scared of me.”
“Perhaps.” Sophia rose. “But once you’ve seen what I have, once you’ve lived in the abyss for that long, fear becomes nothing but another cage.” Then she walked out and into the arms of a cop who waited only until they’d closed the door to his apartment behind them before crushing her into his arms and taking her mouth in a kiss that demanded.
She felt the lingering pain in him, the heavy sorrow of all those families, and gave him what he needed. Everything.
He ripped open her jacket, shoved up her skirt with rough, hungry hands that licked fire across her skin. “Stop me, Sophie.” A harsh whisper. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“It’s okay.” She pushed off his own shirt, baring the sleekly muscular beauty of his chest. “I missed you until I couldn’t breathe. Come inside me.”
Her panties were torn off her, his fingers urgent as he tested her slickness. Lifting a leg, she wrapped it around his hip. He swore, lowered the zipper on his pants, and then the hot, hard heat of him was thrusting into her, pinning her against the wall. She cried out, holding on, holding him tight.
The pleasure was a firestorm that erased the pain, wiped away the sorrow, left her limp, his face buried in her neck as that muscular back gleamed with perspiration. “Hello, my Max,” she whispered.
“Hello, my sweet, sexy Sophie.”
Later that day, after they’d spent most of it tangled up skin to skin, sleeping and loving and holding each other, Sophia took a deep breath. “I did some in-depth investigation of my new shields while you were away—I think I know their origin.”
Her cop stroked her hair off her face, his expression intent. “Tell me.”
“Part of this is because I’m an anchor, but part of it is because my mind is . . . unique.” It had survived by doing the extraordinary. “You know about the NetMind?”
“I’ve heard rumors it’s some kind of psychic entity that organizes the Net.”
“Yes. The thing is, there’s a DarkMind, too.” She’d searched, dug deep to find confirmation of her suspicions. “It’s made up of all the emotions my race has rejected, and it’s so angry, so scared, and so very, very lonely. I think . . . it’s also a little insane.”
Max didn’t ask what others might have. He asked only the critical question. “This DarkMind is protecting you?”
“They both are in a sense.” She took a shaky breath, swallowed. “At first I thought my shields were a psychic extension of the Net, that for some reason, the Twin-Minds had decided to look after me, but while that made sense with my Net shields, it didn’t explain my telepathic protections—those have to come from within. Then I realized it’s me.” She hesitated.