Nikita’s response was pragmatic. “DarkRiver is an important business partner.”
“This isn’t a business meeting,” Sascha said, refusing to let her mother ignore the truth. “I thought I made that clear in my request. I’m sorry if you were misled.”
Nikita remained an ice sculpture on the other side of the table. “Every contact with you is business. If you weren’t part of DarkRiver, there’d be no need for contact at all.”
It hurt, yeah, it hurt. But Sascha was stronger now. And she had the strength of the pack behind her. She could feel their wild protectiveness on the other side of the door that enclosed her in this room with Nikita. But most of all, she could feel the love of her panther. “I wanted to tell you—”
“You’re pregnant,” Nikita said without ceremony. “It’s difficult to miss.”
But so many people had, Sascha thought, trying not to read in Nikita’s keen eyes any kind of an emotional meaning. “I’m about five months along.”
“You must be able to feel the fetus move.”
Sascha curled her hand into a fist under the table, trying to keep her emotions in check. “Yes. The baby is rather feisty, especially at three a.m.”
A pause. “You were the same.”
And there, in that instant, Sascha knew she didn’t understand her mother as well as she thought she did, that Councilor Nikita Duncan had secrets even an empath couldn’t plumb.
Nikita spoke again before Sascha could. “I’ve heard rumors that the leopards isolate their pregnant mates during the final months of their pregnancies.”
Sascha rolled her eyes. “The tabloids made that up after one of the women in the pack was prescribed bed rest because of complications—you must know how they sensationalize everything.” Her panther, overprotective as he was, would never try to keep her apart from those she considered hers—both in the pack and outside of it. But that wasn’t what she’d asked her mother here to discuss. “Why did you send me the book by Alice Eldridge?”
“You’re a cardinal with the strength to control tens of thousands,” Nikita answered, picking up her organizer. “Having an individual of your strength in my corner would be an asset—the benefit would outweigh any cost associated with your flaw.”
Once, that would’ve cut Sascha to the quick. Now . . . now she wondered just how many lies Nikita had told her over her lifetime.
Sophia woke from the most sleepless of nights, her body aching from the inside out, her skin too tight, her nerves shredded. Everything was “off.” Irritation burned inside her, and it had no target, no focus.
Showering helped calm her body a fraction, and so did an intense ten-minute meditation. Feeling slightly more in control, she dressed in a black pantsuit paired with a white shirt, dried then plaited her hair—baring a violence-touched face Max didn’t seem to find the least objectionable—and forced herself to eat a nutrition bar for breakfast. Her cop, she thought, would not approve.
Strange twisting sensations in her abdomen, the renewed prickling of her skin. Heat was just starting to spot her cheeks when the doorbell rang. Throwing the wrapper of the nutrition bar in the recycler, she walked over and opened the door.
It was his scent that hit her first. Exotic and familiar, male in a way she couldn’t explain. But she knew she’d be able to distinguish it from a million others. “Max.”
His eyes narrowed as he entered, closing the door behind himself. “You’re flushed. What’s wrong?”
She rubbed gloved hands over her arms. “I don’t know. I feel . . . edgy. My skin, my body—”
The worry disappeared from his face, to be replaced by something darker and full of a quiet masculine amusement. “It’s called frustration, sweetheart.”
Frustration: synonymous with aggravation, irritation, dissatisfaction.
Yes, she thought. That’s the word.
“I’d have more sympathy for you except that I spent the night with a permanent hard-on.”
Her eyes dropped to his groin. He groaned even as his body reacted rather spectacularly.
Sophia wanted to touch. “Fix it,” she ordered. “You know how to end my frustration and yours, and I’m no longer as overwrought as I was last night.”
He blew out a breath. “Yeah? Maybe I do. And maybe so do you.” There was something exquisitely sensual in his words. “I—”
She never got to hear what he would’ve said, because his cell phone beeped at that moment. And everything changed.
“It’s Bart.” All hint of sensuality leaving his expression, Max put the phone to his ear, his responses not telling Sophia much. “I’ll talk to her.” He snapped the phone shut. “Bonner’s broken sooner than we thought.”
“He’s angry,” Sophia said, feeling a layer of ice form around her, an impenetrable barrier threaded with dark tendrils that “tasted” of the Net. “His ego can’t take that I ended yesterday’s comm-conference before he was ready.” Turning, she headed to her bedroom.
Max caught her arm, felt her tremble though he’d been careful not to touch skin. “What’re you doing?”
“Packing an overnight case,” she said, her voice firm, though her body swayed toward his before she caught herself. “He’ll talk this time, I’m sure of it.” She nodded at his cell phone. “Call Nikita.”
“We can’t leave midcase,” Max said, because though those lost girls owned a piece of his heart, they were already gone, their lights doused. But Sophia, she was alive, her flame flickering against the violent storm of Bonner’s evil. He couldn’t believe that Carissa White and her sisters in death would want him to sacrifice Sophia to bring them home.