She should’ve ended it then, but now that she’d begun, she couldn’t stop. She would not steal his affection, his loyalty, through fraud. It would violate the trust between them, taint everything they had. So though the terror of rejection was a chill hand around her throat, she smoothed her flawlessly straight skirt down her legs and said, “Do you remember Dr. Henley?” The famous geneticist had killed his pregnant wife in cold blood, then sliced her up into neat little pieces and dumped those pieces in the sea when he’d gone out for a Sunday fishing trip. There was even speculation that he’d used some pieces as bait.
“Not a case I could ever forget.”
“The Council planned to transfer him to a Psy facility where he could continue his groundbreaking work.” The callous murder of an innocent woman and her unborn child had been considered a mere inconvenience. “All the Js knew.”
“Pity then,” Max said in a hard voice, “that he had a sudden, violent embolism that stopped his heart on his first day in prison, died before the medics could get to him.”
Sophia sucked in a breath. She’d guessed he understood what Js were capable of, had wanted to drive home the point so that there would be absolute honesty between them, but from the way he spoke . . . “Have you always known?”
“Cops call it the J-penalty.” A grim look. “You weren’t in the vicinity. I’ve seen your record. You weren’t anywhere near Henley’s prison when he died.”
“No.” Then, “Not me. Not that time.”
He slid back his door. “Come on.”
She got out to walk beside him, her heart a tight, hopeful knot. “I know you’ve accepted me”—and that remained a deep source of wonder—“but I still thought you’d be more . . .”
“Hard-assed?” A snort. “I’ve seen rich men skate off rape charges, politicians bury abuse claims, young girls commit suicide after being hurt. I don’t agree with vigilante justice, but Js aren’t exactly vigilantes are they? They know the exact nature of a particular crime, and they tend to give out punishments perfectly calibrated to that crime—and only in cases where justice would otherwise be defiled.”
“We aren’t judge and jury.” She’d never talked openly about this. Even among Js, it wasn’t ever actually discussed. But they all knew the parameters, understood what the Corps would overlook as the cost of having Js in the system. “We’re the last resort when the tools of justice fail the victims.”
“What,” Max said, coming to a stop in front of the elevators, his body angled to hide her from the surveillance cameras, “is the impact on a J who acts as that last resort . . . as an executioner if necessary.”
“ ‘Every action has an opposite and equal reaction,’ ” she said, quoting the well-known law of physics. “That maxim holds true on the psychic plane.”
White lines bracketed Max’s mouth. “So a J would be damaged by the event?”
“Not exactly damaged. I would say . . . changed.”
A long, still pause. “You can’t do it anymore,” he finally said very, very quietly. “Do you understand me, Sophia?”
Her lips quivered for the barest fraction of a moment. “Max, are you trying to fix me?” It was impossible, and she couldn’t bear for him to realize that too late, walk away.
“No. I’m trying to save you.” An implacable, absolute answer. “It’s about choices. I need you to make one to fight those instincts—every time you give in, it eats away a little bit of your psyche.”
The otherness in her—twined with those dark threads that tasted of the Net—stirred, considered, bowed its head. “I can do that.” For Max, only for Max. He was a cop. He’d accepted her past with open eyes and an open heart, but what she did from now on, even if only a few individuals realized the depth of the connection between them, would reflect on him, stain his career—and she was too proud of him to chance that. “It’s a small price to pay to be with you.”
“No price, Sophie, no ultimatums.” An unqualified reassurance that made her want to pull him forward by the lapels of his suit jacket and kiss him again and again. “You belong to me—and I’m keeping you no matter what.”
“That means you belong to me, too.” It came from the dark heart of her, the place where no light had ever shone . . . until this man looked at her with eyes that said she wasn’t a piece of trash to be discarded because she’d proved imperfect. For the first time in her life, she had started to feel whole, the scars, the fractures, simply a part of her.
Max shrugged, that lean dimple flashing in his cheek. “I’m not arguing.”
“So,” she said, everything in her—even the once scared, lonely girl who’d only ever spoken through the hand of cold justice before—determined to stake its claim loud and clear, “if I find a business card from a female in your jacket, she had better be a colleague.”
Max felt a laugh build in his chest, had to fight the urge to tug Sophia into his arms and bite down on that full lower lip in a gesture of open possession. “No one will dare hit on me after I mention my wife is a J with a jealous streak.”
Wife. Her composure splintered. “Max, no matter what, we could never—”
“I told you, Sophie. You’re mine. End of story.”
In certain types of cases, most cops immediately suspect the father. Nobody thinks of the mother, not at first. Except me. And I wish I didn’t.