“Their system was pretty good last time I was here.” Releasing her hair with a little tug that made her scalp prickle with sensation, the ice thawing in a flare of white-hot heat, he rubbed at his jaw. “But they have leaks.”
“There are leaks in every Enforcement building.” Facilitated, in most cases, by the Psy.
“I think I know someone else who’ll have a secure link.”
So it was that half an hour later, Sophia was ushered into a small conference room in the medium-sized office building that was the DarkRiver leopard pack’s city HQ. “They’re not worried?” she asked after their escort—an auburn-haired young male—withdrew from the conference room. “The changeling distrust of Psy is well-known.”
“This is where the cats do business,” Max replied, setting up the comm-conference using the touch pads. “Some of that business is with Psy. And don’t forget—DarkRiver has several Psy defectors in its ranks.”
“This building is full of changelings.” The statement of the obvious slipped out.
Max turned to pin her to the spot with his eyes. “Are you having trouble?”
“No.” She tugged her gloves more securely over her wrists and snugly below the cuffs of her white shirt, the action more of . . . comfort, than necessity. “Changelings are actually restful.”
A raised eyebrow, those solid shoulders relaxing as he returned his attention to the comm controls. “Not many people would describe them that way. They tend to have this wild energy below the human surface.”
She wanted to point out that he burned with that same wild energy—though in his case, it was contained so well, most people would never guess at it. All those women who wanted to own him, she thought, they didn’t understand what it was they dared attempt to harness. But she knew. And she wondered what it would be like to stroke that sleekly muscular body with her bare hands.
He looked up, caught her watching him. “When we’re alone.” A tease . . . and a warning.
Closing her hand over the arm of her chair, she jerked away her head. “Changelings all have natural mental shields.”
“So why are you tense enough to snap?”
It was impossible not to glance back at him, to watch him as he rechecked the encryption, lines of concentration across his brow. At that moment, the leash slipped free, the reins broke, and everything disappeared but the promise and the danger that was Detective Max Shannon—she wanted to touch the skin exposed at his nape, wanted to know if it was soft or rough, wanted to strip off his shirt and rub her lips over the muscles that shifted beneath that honey-colored skin, wanted to stroke and know and possess. She simply wanted. “Changelings like to touch.” It came out soft, husky.
Max’s shoulders grew tight, but he didn’t turn. “I asked Clay about that while you were in the bathroom just before. They don’t presume skin privileges, so you’re safe.”
“Skin privileges.” She tested the unfamiliar term, gleaning its meaning from the context. “And you, Max?” Thought translated into words so fast, she had no chance—or will—to hold them back. “Are you easy with skin privileges?”
Max moved to brace his hands on the back of her chair, leaning down until his lips threatened to brush the tip of her ear. “It depends on who’s asking.” The scent of him surrounded her as he placed his hands on the table on either side of her. A sensual trap. “But if you’re talking about a certain J, well, for her, I might be very, very easy.”
A tight kind of heat bloomed in Sophia’s stomach, a strange fire that burned even the darkest, most secret part of her. “Max.” She didn’t know what she was asking for, her heartbeat an erratic tattoo against her ribs.
Max pushed off the table with a groan. “We can’t do this here. It’s almost time for the conference.” A light touch on her shoulder, holding a protectiveness that shook her, disarmed her. “You ready, Sophie?”
His voice, his presence, his willingness to be her shield . . . it shook her, but she nodded. “Yes.” This had to be done—those girls had to be brought home.
Even a Psy without any family of her own understood the importance of children, the ties of blood. To lose a child in the Net was to lose not only your immortality, but also your chance to gain the unqualified loyalty of at least one individual. Unless, of course, you were young enough to sire or carry other progeny.
Sophia’s parents had been in their early thirties the summer she turned eight and everything fractured. They’d gone on to have two more children—both with each other. Their genes, after all, had already proved a complimentary set. Her siblings, too, were high-Gradient telepaths. Not as strong as her. But they weren’t broken.
Bartholomew Reuben’s face appeared onscreen at that moment, slicing away the heart pain of the past with the sadistic evil of the present. “Max, Ms. Russo, good to see you. You’ll be transferred to Bonner in a few seconds.”
“You flew there, Bart?” Max asked. “Waste of time.”
“No, I’m in another prison.” The prosecutor’s lips curved in a humorless smile. “Bonner’s not going to be pleased we didn’t all start running when he said fetch.”
A warning countdown appeared in the corner of the screen.
Max snorted. “I’m not exactly worried about pleasing the bastard.”
“I’ll be hooked into the comm-conference—”