A vivid blackness, a connection being cut, and Sophia felt air whistling into her lungs in a violent, biting rush.
“Sophie! Look at me.” Max’s hand on her cheek, a tactile shock that made her eyes snap open.
He dropped his hand at once, white lines bracketing his mouth. “Talk to me.”
“Not here.” Her throat was shredded, lined with a million splinters. “Get me home. Please, Max.”
And somehow, he did.
Her knees buckled the instant they were inside his apartment.
“I’ve got you.” Catching her up in his arms—and being careful to avoid any skin-to-skin contact—Max carried her to the sofa. But instead of setting her down, he took a seat with her in his lap. “Shh,” he said when she grew stiff. “Let me hold you.”
“I need to do this.” A fierce whisper.
When he did nothing except hold her, she relaxed, laying her head on his shoulder. It was so tempting to place her hand on his other shoulder, but he was only wearing a fine cotton shirt and she wasn’t sure if the barrier would be strong enough. Not after the impact of what she’d seen, and with him so warm and solid around her, the scent of him an unambiguously masculine blend of heat, soap, and a fresh pine that she knew was his aftershave.
Drawing it in, she sighed, melting into his embrace. She could have cuddled into him forever, but she had to know, had to ask. “Who is River?”
Max froze at the quiet question, his heart punching against his ribs so hard, he half expected to see blood dot his chest. “My younger brother.”
Sophia stilled within his arms, but her question, when it came, was practical. Psy. “You have clear markers of Asian descent, while he was unquestionably Caucasian.”
The logical query calmed him, gave him an anchor. “He looked—looks exactly like our mother.” River had been her shadow and her mirror. And in the end that knowledge had broken his brother. “We had different fathers. His was as blond as our mother.” While Max’s was an unknown, a man who’d given him only the genetic heritage of another culture. “No one ever believed we were brothers.” But they were. They’d come from the same womb, grown up in the same hell.
“Is he—” A pause, a long breath. “You wanted to use the past tense.”
Another stab of pain, but he didn’t tell her to drop the subject. It had been so long since he’d spoken of River to someone who’d known him—and somehow, he knew his J did. “River disappeared when I was almost fourteen and he was eleven. He was so lost in the drugs by then that I know he can’t have survived long . . . but part of me wakes up every morning hoping that when I open the door, I’ll see him on the other side.”
Sophia shifted position, her gloved hand rising to curve hesitantly over the back of his neck. “I’m sorry, Max. I didn’t mean to invade your memories.”
“I thought my shield—”
She shook her head. “Most telepaths who are born with the ability to be Js often also have some latent or weak F abilities.”
Max frowned. “Foreseers see the future.”
“Usually, yes. But there is a small subgroup that sees the past. It’s termed backsight.”
He knew she was talking so factually because she’d read his pain, was trying to distance him from it the only way she knew how, his vulnerable J with a heart that understood how much memories could hurt. “You saw River in a flash of backsight.”
“Yes. It’s the first incident I’ve ever had.” Eyes haunted, she placed her hand on his shoulder. “If statistics hold true, that’s probably the single one I’ll ever experience.”
“You sound glad.”
“I’ve never felt so helpless,” she whispered.
“What did you see?” His heart twisted—there’d been no horror in her eyes, so perhaps she’d seen a slice of happiness.
“You and your brother in an alley. You were trying to talk him out of doing drugs.”
“I tried so many times.” Max dropped his head against her. “He was the one person I loved, the one person who mattered. But I couldn’t save him.”
“He was so young,” Sophia said.
“And damaged—so much that he couldn’t see any other way out.” Max wished he could go back in time, convince River that none of it was his fault. “He blamed himself for things over which he had no control.”
Her hand stroked his nape, soft, hesitant, but gaining in confidence. “He said . . . he said . . .”
And he knew she hadn’t missed out on the horror. “Tell me.”
“He said she didn’t protect you.”
The pain of the child he’d been speared through him. “It was as if my mother had two personalities.” One for each son. “As an adult, I know I could’ve done nothing to bring on the kind of hatred she felt toward me—but part of me still believes that I did something to make her treat me the way she did.” His voice broke.
Sophia’s breath whispered over his hair as she held him, as she, a woman born of a race with no emotion, gave him more affection than the woman who’d given birth to him.
Sascha lay curled up in bed around six that evening, tired though she’d done very little. But she didn’t feel the need to move—it was nice to lie surrounded by the warm, masculine scent of the panther who was her mate. Snuggling into his pillow, she opened up the text that was her own personal guidebook—and an endless source of frustration.