“Are you Universe or Night Stars?”
There was static on the other end and a sensation of masculine energy. Fear sliced through her solar plexus. Tangled impressions of anger and triumph flowed through her from a different source, but she couldn’t define them before they faded.
The U.S. paranormal agency, then, not the Russian one. She didn’t want to deal with either, but if she had to, she preferred the U.S.
The question wasn’t whether there was trouble on the other end of the phone, the question was how much trouble. She had an impression of blond hair and amber eyes, but the images were distorted as if they were seen through a fun house mirror. Images lingered in her mind. The rotting stench of garbage. The room swimming around her. A smoky bar with unknown people lurking in the corners.
The call was from Bobbie’s number. Glancing over at Bobbie’s bed in the shared room confirmed it was empty. She must have slipped out when Maya had fallen asleep. It was no surprise. Maya had sensed Bobbie’s longing for a drink before the drama of the last few days caught up with her and she fell asleep. She peeked at the blue LED display of the cheap hotel clock. Three A.M.
“How drunk is she?” Maya couldn’t help her bitter tone. Bobbie hadn’t been able to wait one day before running to the bars. Not even their flight out of San Diego had deterred her from heading for the local scene as soon as the duo got settled.
“She’s smashed. Totally pissed.” The masculine voice had an accent that Maya identified as British, incongruous with the area they were in. In the day since arriving in Richmond she had heard mostly drawls that spoke of hot southern nights, trees draped with kudzu, and mint juleps on the veranda.
“No surprise there. Okay, Mr. Universe, who are you and why do you have Bobbie’s phone?”
A harsh sound cut through the static, a bark of not-quite laughter. “My name is Ian Sanderson. Your psychic ability doesn’t usually give you names, so that is mine. Why are you in Richmond?”
She sensed a strong shield around his inner thoughts from this Ian Sanderson, and Maya knew he was only giving her surface images. That too was typical of what she’d learned about the dueling spy agencies. There was curiosity and anger as well as something deeper she couldn’t get ahold of. He was a mystery. She had learned to fear mysteries.
“As you say, I’m Maya Wingfield. But you already knew that,” Maya said. “We’re . . .” She was about to say they were visiting Richmond, their handy cover story, but cut off the lies before they were spoken. If he was Universe he already knew the truth. “What do you want, Ian Sanderson?”
The spicy tang of an unfamiliar cologne filled her nostrils, adding to the image of the man. She felt disgust and impatience but behind those emotions was more, something far deeper. Once again, she couldn’t get it to come through. She’d seen shields before but his was better than most.
“I want to talk to you. You must know how your friend wound up at my bar. It was a cakewalk to get her in here, but I didn’t expect her to get completely arseholed. Astounding that nobody nicked her purse. She’s on the couch in my office. You need to come get her.”
It wouldn’t be the first time she’d gotten wasted, but Bobbie rarely passed out. This smelled like a set up. Fat chance she was going to a hotbed of Universe operatives. They might slug her over the head and carry her off. Or they could have had something to do with what drove them out of San Diego . . . Maya shuddered at the memory.
“Put her in a cab,” Maya said, trying to probe him again. Her mental forays were turned away by his shield, but she couldn’t detect any overt falsehood. Of course, there were ways to hide that as well.
Ian chuckled. “Do you think you can tell Universe what to do?” Despite the words, his tone hinted at more approval than censure. It sent a shock wave through her, pings of awareness searing down her nerve endings.
It’s been too long since I got laid.
“I prefer not to deal with Universe at all. I can always run again,” she replied. No point in dissembling.
“If you think you got away clean from San Diego, luv, then you’re more naïve than I was led to believe. You were allowed to escape. You don’t need to give me the address. I know where you are.” He sighed, a sound so loud she decided it had to be faked. If only she could probe his mind more, but this Universe operative had had good training. “You win, pigeon. I’ll send her to you.”
The overwhelming sense of danger that had prompted her flight out of San Diego had dissipated with every passing mile, but that didn’t mean the threat wasn’t still present. He was Universe. He represented everything her parents had left behind.
Maya wished she had a car to go get her friend, but money was tight and they’d opted against a rental. Now she realized how foolish that was. When you’re running from danger it doesn’t pay to be stranded. Her parents had taught her better than that.
“I will wait for the cab,” she said. “Thank you.” It didn’t come out gracious, but she told herself she didn’t care. He was Universe, and therefore the niceties didn’t matter. She knew enough about that group to last a lifetime.
“You’re welcome, Maya,” he said, and his voice was silk caressing her ear. She wanted to draw his scent to her again and sniffed the air. Madness. Definitely too long since she got laid.
She set the phone down and started pacing. Maya raised her hands and found they were shaking. Nerves and leftover adrenaline still coursed through her, having not quite dissipated after their crazy flight from San Diego. It wasn’t just the fact that Bobbie had done something that could have gotten her killed. It was what Bobbie did. That she’d brought Universe to them was likely inevitable. There were attraction powers that could convince people to spend their money at that establishment rather than a different one, although Maya thought those were illegal within Universe.
When they’d run from San Diego it had been on the heels of dozens of minds pressing down on her, crawling thoughts of unspeakable dark things that even now made her shudder. They were all focused on her, searching for her, and all of them wanted to rip her apart, or worse. She’d felt a dozen different ways to kill a person in those dreadful moments, imagery searing through her mind until all she could do was think about getting out right away. Maya couldn’t explain it to Bobbie, but she had to run, go, get out of San Diego. Get anywhere but the city that had terror lurking around every corner. Bobbie had taken one look at her and begun checking train schedules to get out of the city. Maya tried to tell Bobbie she didn’t have to come with her, but her roommate shrugged and kept looking for ways off the West Coast. Richmond was what they came up with, and it worked for Maya. It was an improbable location, which was part of its appeal. She’d thought those . . . people . . . who wanted to hurt her, and worse, wouldn’t look for her there. If they looked for her at all it would be in a larger city. She couldn’t express any of this to Bobbie, but it didn’t seem the other woman required an explanation. Despite the oddity of the situation she didn’t ask questions. To try and obscure their trail they had paid cash for their fares and transferred between local buses and trains for several states before getting on a plane in New Mexico to fly to Richmond. Maya sensed the danger fading behind them and relaxed. It seemed that relaxation had been premature. Regardless, Maya owed Bobbie. She’d find a way out of this somehow.
Something else was wrong, something that didn’t feel like Universe or Night Stars. There was a dark overlay somewhere swarming in dank corners where monsters lurked. She just couldn’t figure out the source. It didn’t seem to come from the British Universe operative, but Ian had good shields. Perhaps they were even better than she gave him credit for.
The malignant feeling lurked in the night, an aura that surrounded her and pushed her to run again. But if Universe had found her here that meant anyone could. There was nowhere left to run.
She scanned the room and confirmed that she had only unpacked the bare essentials. A hairbrush. Toothbrush. Phone and charger. If necessary, she could get them all into her carry sack within seconds and be gone again.
She wished more than ever that they had rented a car. Paper trail or no paper trail, money or no money, it now seemed the height of foolishness not to be mobile. With a car she could have gotten Bobbie out of there as soon as Ian sent her back and headed for . . . somewhere. But where? If Richmond had Universe operatives, probably all the cities did. And little towns only made you more visible.
Cursing herself, Maya settled down to wait for her roommate. One problem at a time.
~ ~ ~
His car reeked of stale sweat and cheap perfume. The drunk woman next to him was so pissed her head lolled from side to side as he navigated turns in the quiet hour of the morning. The sensitive’s friend was being held upright by the shoulder belt. Bits of trash clung to her clothes, the odor of alley mixing with stale vodka. He would take his car to be detailed when this was over.
It hadn’t been his intention to get her that way, just intoxicated enough to loosen her tongue, but once she started she couldn’t stop. When his attention was elsewhere she had gotten wasted. Their intelligence about this one had been spot on. She was a lush, unable to hold her liquor. He wasn’t the first to get information out of Bobbie Purcell via alcohol.
It had been a mistake to infer to Maya that Universe had been tracking them since the two began their flight out of San Diego. He was going to need to be careful what he said to the sensitive. She could have anywhere from basic talent to being as strong as Sasha, the Universe operative who had been tracking Maya. He doubted she was like the powerful operative, but until Maya was examined there was no way to know for sure.
As he drove he considered what he was going to say to Maya. Even if she only had minimal strength she could detect lies, so he couldn’t tell a corker and expect her to believe it. An unaligned sensitive was a miracle in these times, if she was in fact neutral. There was always the possibility that she was a player in a dangerous game with Whisper, the new group surfacing around the world. They had all manner of powers that were unlike anything seen before. If Maya Wingfield was in league with them it meant bad things for Richmond. Universe needed to know more, about so many things. It was his job to find out.
As he made his way from the Row to their motel, Ian wished he had Maya’s abilities. But he was just a poor telekinetic with no ability to read minds. His job would be a lot easier if he could.
In the light traffic of pre-dawn, it took Ian little time to get to the motel. Maya wasn’t expecting him, so he kept his shielding as tight as possible. Years of training should at least give him the ability to surprise her, if only for a moment. Enough time to see what she was made of. Babysitting. That was his job these days. Bloody babysitting. And a sensitive, no less. Universe was having a laugh. But it was no laughing matter to him. Sensitives. Blast.
A door opened along the second-floor concrete walkway of the motel the moment he arrived, and a figure emerged. Throwing the car into park he examined the area, wishing he could see more of Maya in the dark.
Then he started. Ian saw Maya. She glowed from within. He couldn’t make out her eyes or hair, although he knew she was a blonde with blue eyes from their intel. It was more in her radiance, in the way that she wore her power with ease. How had it taken so long for San Diego—or anyone—to realize what she was? Everyone with power had to know she was one of them.
It could all be a long con. There were too many unanswered questions about what made hundreds of powered minds in San Diego erupt at once, causing these two to bunk out of the city. Night Stars was notorious for such tactics, but they claimed innocence of the attack. Whisper was more likely the culprit. Too many unanswered questions.
Ian moved to the passenger side and opened the door. Bobbie slid out of the car, only the shoulder strap stopping her from plunging to the ground. Her eyes were unfocused, and she was mumbling something. The whole way there she’d been murmuring words, but nothing that made any sense. In her state she could be seeing flying pink elephants and wouldn’t remember them in the morning. He’d tried to see if he could get information out of her, but she was past being coherent. Damn it. He should have done better than this. An added demerit on the Sanderson scale.
“Bobbie? Is that you?”
The tinny phone connection hadn’t told him that her voice would sound like honey and velvet. His cock twitched at the sight of Maya framed in silhouette, her face indistinct but showing fine woman’s curves backlit against the cheap motel room.
Even through the gloom and the uncertain radiance of the lights on the narrow second floor corridor, Ian saw her start. He realized she’d been looking for the top glow of a taxi sign.
“I drove her,” Ian shouted, and Maya made a shushing noise. It was after three, closer to four. Not that he gave a shit.
She stepped forward into the light, and Ian’s cock hardened in a rush. It wasn’t the face, although she was pretty. It wasn’t her body, which was fine as well, tall and lean, her weight balancing on the balls of her feet. It wasn’t her hair, a curly, tangled mass of dark blonde that needed to have male hands plunged into it. It was the pulse of power in her, the questing talent that he could feel against his shield. It reminded him why he was here. It was his fault Universe was short a sensitive, an already rare commodity.
He pushed Bobbie up, slinging his arm around her. The woman moaned, her head flopping back, and Ian caught it with his free hand, supporting it and easing it into a more natural position. Arms full of Bobbie, Ian gestured with his chin to Maya.
“Where?” he asked.
“You were supposed to put her in a cab. Or Uber.”
He shrugged, a gesture made difficult by armfuls of drunk woman, and then used some of his power to lighten Bobbie’s weight. The faint glow of his palms wouldn’t show against her clothes. Maya might be able to pick up his talent, but he wouldn’t make it easy for her.
“Cabbies are scarce this time of night. Private drivers can be predators. I was awake.”
Maya pursed her lips. He couldn’t see her eyes, but he didn’t need to. They would be light aquamarine, like all women with abilities. It was their signature, as amber eyes in the men was also a sign.
“Come on, luv, she’s heavy,” he lied. “Where?” He’d let the woman drop right now if it were up to him. Too bad they needed her to get to Maya. He needed to know more. He needed to know her affiliations. There was too much at stake. He would not fail again.
Maya started, and Ian wondered how much of his emotions she had felt. Quillan’s information placed her at twenty-five and a sensitive of unknown power. Enough to sense him. More than enough for their purposes.
After what seemed like eons, Maya nodded.
“Room 203. There’s no elevator.”
~ ~ ~
Ian hauled Bobbie up the stairs, her tottering weight seeming not to faze him. His arms around Bobbie were corded with muscle—big guns—as he continued to guide her toward the room. If he was trying to help Bobbie shake the drunk off it was useless.
Maya knew from past experience that Bobbie would need to sleep for most of the next day to be semi-human. This was far from the first time she’d come home stumbling drunk.
Maya allowed herself to peruse the blond man who had reached the top of the stairs. His chest showed no extra flesh, his body tapering from shoulders to waist, the sight sending electrical charges searing down her nerve endings. Maya shook her head, grateful for the dim light, so he couldn’t see the flush that crawled over her cheeks. Her limbs were the consistency of warm taffy, sensual alertness sweeping over her in an unexpected tide.
Once Ian had wrestled Bobbie onto the landing, Maya widened the door to their room, pressing her body back as he dragged her roommate inside. If Maya could have carried Bobbie she would have taken her friend from Ian, but she’d had plenty of unsuccessful attempts to move Bobbie in this condition. Once she’d had to leave her right inside the front door of the apartment, unable to move her any further. Although Ian made a show of groaning under Bobbie’s weight there was no telltale strain to his muscles. He had some kind of strength power then, probably telekinesis.
She gestured for Ian to lay her friend down on the still made double bed at the far side of the room. He dumped Bobbie before turning toward Maya with one eyebrow raised.
“Thank you for your help,” she said, gesturing toward the door. He crossed his arms and stood there without moving, his gaze locked on hers. Maya made a frustrated sound and put her hands on her hips, wanting to back up a step but not daring to show weakness.
“Ian Sanderson, thanks for bringing her home, but that’s where my gratitude ends.” She knew it wouldn’t be that easy, but she wasn’t about to make this simple for him.
Bobbie was mumbling unintelligibly, tossing on the bed, her hands clutching the covers. The faint scent of garbage drifted toward Maya, making her nose wrinkle.
Ian dragged his wallet out of his back pocket and tossed it to Maya. His jeans pulled along the front at the motion, drawing her attention to the top of his thighs. They were snug but not tight, although they appeared to be growing tighter. Maya’s flush deepened, sensual awareness pounding through her.
“Check my ID. I am who I say I am. For that matter, check my aura. You know we can’t lie to someone like you.”
There was something right and yet not right about his statements. Fishing his Virginia driver’s license out of its holder, Maya studied it. No falsehood clung to the ID. She could detect no trickery. If nothing else, his name was Ian Sanderson, and this was his identification.
That told her nothing. She handed the ID back to Ian, who tucked it in his back pocket with a shrug.
“I should get her changed. Her clothes smell of vomit,” Maya said, pointing to the flecks on Bobbie’s attire. One shoe was missing. When Bobbie came to she would be pissed. She had just bought those shoes.
“She was a right cabbage going on a bender. She made a bodge of it. We didn’t mean for her to get tanked, but once she started she couldn’t stop. I’ll talk to my bartenders. They should have known better than to keep serving her.”
“O-kay,” Maya said, running her hand over her forehead. “I get the gist of what you’re saying, if not all the words. You’re saying she made a mess of things, right?”
He was taller than she’d thought, somewhere around 6’3”. She’d always liked tall men. It helped her 5’9” frame feel more petite. He shifted on the balls of his feet while she contemplated what to do with Bobbie’s ruined clothing. Her roommate made retching sounds, and Maya wondered if she was going to vomit again.
“Are you going to change her?” Ian asked.
Maya shifted her notice from Bobbie to Ian. Bits of detritus clung to Bobbie’s hair. The idea of touching her made Maya want to gag herself.
Finally, Maya shook her head. “I can’t deal with it. I’ll help her when she comes to, but she’s just dead weight right now.”
Ian’s lips were a slash in his unreadable face.
“Smart lass. In case she needs to honk again, where’s your dustbin?”
“Trash can is next to the TV.” She gestured toward the console on the opposite wall. “I think you’ve done everything you can do here. Thanks for your help. You can go.”
Ian brought the receptacle over, setting it near Bobbie on the far side of the bed. Heat blazed from his body as he brushed past and Maya’s skin tingled. Her head buzzed although she’d had nothing to drink that night. After witnessing several of Bobbie’s benders and feeling hungover and sick as well, Maya stopped drinking.
She pursed her lips, wondering if he was going to ignore her command to leave. He knew what she was. He wouldn’t bother to lie, knowing she could pick up the falsehood. Most of his mind was hidden under layers of shielding until his thoughts were encased in a bubble, only the surface ones apparent. Her parents had the same shields, but not as strong. His were better. Then again, her parents rarely had their defenses up this tightly around Maya.
“I don’t sense that she is in true danger,” Maya said, her words slow. “She’s going to be unhappy tomorrow . . . today . . . but that’s par for the course. That’s always what happens after she goes on a bender.”
“Good.” His interest flickered from the trash can to Maya until it came to rest again on Bobbie. Maya reached into his mind for any note of falsehood, but all she saw was unease. Whatever else he was, Ian Sanderson was concerned about Bobbie’s condition.
Maya met his eyes, and only then did she realize how small the room was and how big Ian was. She swung her arms at her sides before clapping her hands together in front of her. It was hard to make him out in the dim light.
She didn’t know Ian. All she had to go on was what he had said. His ID might check out to her built-in bullshit detector but that didn’t make him a nice guy. He could be a lot of things, besides Universe. He could still be a threat, could still be dangerous. He shouldn’t have felt of rightness, of home, an elusive puzzle piece that had just been snapped into its proper location. He seemed familiar, an old friend she’d lost contact with.
The silence had gone on too long. Darting a nervous glance around the room, Maya moistened her top lip with her tongue.
“I . . . um,” she faltered, her mouth dry. “It’s late. Can I get you water or something else before you go?”
He shook his head and moved a step closer. Wanting to back up from this large man while also feeling the urge to go to him, Maya remained still. Show no fear.
“No water,” Ian said. “But I’ll tell you what I’m really doing here.”