How many times, Jay Khanna now said, did you see her husband abuse her in the days leading up to the murder?
Sophia betrayed no surprise—part of her had been expecting the question since the moment she met the arrogantly beautiful Emilie Valentine. None, sir.
Think about that carefully, Ms. Russo. We’ll speak again before the case goes to trial.
Letting the veiled order fade from her mind, Sophia considered what her response would be on Jay’s next telepathic visit. The ability to “bend” memories was the most tightly guarded secret of the Justice Corps. Everyone thought Js could only project what was already in a defendant’s mind. In most cases, yes.
But there was a select group of Js who had the ability to manipulate memories without leaving a trace, changing images and words, sounds and actions until a simple tumble down a set of stairs could be made to look like an abusive push.
Sophia was one of the best, had been brilliant at it even as a child. Because she’d spent every spare moment honing the skill, aware that that nascent ability was one of only two reasons why the decision makers had let her live after she’d been ruined from the inside out, her mind a place where nothing quite made sense anymore.
Nobody ever asked, and she never told . . . but the splinters in her soul were permanent. She’d never recovered from the terror-filled days she’d spent trapped in that cabin in the mountains, never again understood the world as she had before the glass cut her face to shreds.
Max finally fell asleep late into the night, his body still humming with his violent response to Sophia’s fleeting touch. So in a sense, he’d expected the intensity of his dreams . . . but not their subject.
“You little shit!” Hands shaking him hard, so hard, as a screaming mouth spewed obscenities at him.
He stood frozen, trying not to cry. He couldn’t cry. That would only make her more mad.
“Just like your father.” It was screamed into his face. “Piece of filth.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, and he couldn’t help it, his voice broke.
For an instant, her face went unnaturally calm. There were no more screams, no more painful shakes. She just stared at him.
And he knew that his mother wanted to suffocate the life out of him.
Max’s eyes snapped open, his hand going for the stunner under his pillow. It took him close to two minutes to realize the danger was only in his head. She’d almost killed him in the memory, come so close that sweat broke out along his spine even now, his skin taut with remembered terror.
Getting up, he walked into the bathroom to throw cold water on his face.
It snapped the remaining threads of the dream, his mind beginning to function again. The connection was indisputable—Sophia, a J, had touched him . . . and he’d had a dream from when he’d been small, so small that he couldn’t have been more than three at the time. He’d never before remembered anything from that period of his life.
The consequences of further contact didn’t escape him—but when it came to Sophia Russo, Max had no intention of retreating.
Max invited Sophia into the privacy of his apartment the next morning when she came to meet him for the drive to Nikita’s office. Shadows bruised the skin beneath her eyes, her bones cutting blades against that normally lush skin. “Tough night?” he murmured.
“I should know better than anyone that memories are never gone,” she said in an echo of his own thoughts, “but even I, it seems, have some delusions left.”
Raising his hand with a slowness that gave her plenty of warning, he began to play with a lock of her hair. She went preternaturally still, but she didn’t stop him. “Memories aren’t always vicious,” he said, speaking to both of them. “I’ll remember the softness of your hair each time I smell your shampoo. Let’s see, vanilla and”—he paused, took a long, indulgent breath—“below it, some kind of a flower?”
To his surprise, she answered. “Lavender soap. I use it on my body.” Then she lifted her own hand, hesitated.
He bent his head in invitation, his heart kicking against his ribs. Slow, Max, he ordered himself, take it f**king slow. He waited for her fingertips to stroke through his hair, however she touched not his hair . . . but his lips.
He couldn’t control the shudder that rippled through him. The leather-synth of her glove was warm with her body heat, the pressure so slight as to be nonexistent—but it held him captive, slave to her desires.
“This,” she whispered, tracing the shape of his mouth, “will be a good memory.”
It was tempting to surrender to the pleasure, but she’d come to him with nightmares in her eyes. “Tell me about your dreams.”
“You said your mother hated you,” she said, the harshness of the words nullified by the delicate way she stroked over his lower lip, as if fascinated by the feel of him. “Mine rejected me as absolutely.”
The hunger to hold her strained at every one of his muscles, the butterfly flirtation of her touch fuel to his instincts. “Why?” The cop in him said this was important, that it held the key to understanding her.
“I was imperfect.” Dropping her hand, she took a step back. “We should begin the drive to Nikita’s.”
Imperfect. Anger burned a steel flame inside him, but he angled his head in acquiescence, not trusting himself to stop with a simple comforting touch—not when he wanted to crush her to him, teach her that he saw her as anything but imperfect.
Neither of them spoke again until they were in the car and on the road. “My knowledge of Nikita is based on what I’ve seen in the media,” he said as they merged into the morning traffic. “She comes across as intelligent, a cut-throat businesswoman.”