That was the only word that accurately described the slim, petite girl waiting next to the tall woman Nyrene immediately pegged as Taige Morgan. And there was nothing delicate about Taige.
Everything about the woman hailed as the Psychic of the South screamed confidence and quiet, determined capability. Nyrene had the idea that someone could hand her the drawn-out plans to bring about WWIII and she’d just nod and go about thwarting them all without breaking a sweat.
Oddly enough, although she was clearly still a teenager, the girl next to Taige carried herself with the same confidence, the same strength.
And Nyrene saw it—these two weren’t mother and daughter by blood—but they were in every other way.
Taige was mixed-race, like Nyrene herself. It was there in the pale gold of her skin, the pale gray of her eyes and the crazy curls she’d pulled back from her face in a series of braids.
Jillian, on the other hand, was petite and fair. Her hair was curly, too, but the curls were loose and soft, framing her face in a series of ringlets. Her mouth looked like a cupid’s bow, pink and perfect and completely naked of lipstick. Her eyes were big and dark, an inky shade of blue that made Nyrene think of midnight as she approached.
The top of her head came up to Nyrene’s chin but she held the older woman’s gaze steadily, her slender shoulders ramrod straight, her gaze appraising.
Abruptly, her mother’s lips curled up and Taige looked away, her gaze drifting down to her daughter’s. “Stop that, baby.”
Jillian Morgan hadn’t done a thing.
But she shrugged. “Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to me,” Taige said, nudging her.
Jillian’s gaze flitted to Nyrene and she sighed. “Fine. I’m sorry.” Then she pursed her lips and added, “But I’m not delicate.”
Joss covered a laugh with a cough as Nyrene’s steps stumbled to a halt. “Maybe I should have mentioned something. Jillian can read minds. Any mind—whether it’s shielded or not. The gift is sort of spiking out of control right now, too, so she can’t always control it.”
“Maybe you should try harder,” Nyrene snapped immediately, and instinctively, doubling the wall that Joss had built inside her mind.
Jillian opened her mouth to reply, then she stopped, face scrunching up. “How did you do that?” she demanded.
“Do what?” Nyrene crossed her arms over her chest, feeling oddly naked.
“You…” Jillian waved a hand at Nyrene’s head. “You just knocked me out of your head. Nobody can do that.”
While Nyrene struggled to answer, Taige refocused her gaze on Nyrene. After a few short moments, a smile spread across her face. “Oh, honey…I think I’m going to like you.”
* * * * *
“As long as you keep yourself locked up tight like you are now, you don’t need to worry about people from the Portal finding you.” Taige looked at Nyrene and shook her head. “If Jillian can’t pick up on you, it’s like you don’t even exist.”
Nyrene slid a look over to the girl in question. “I don’t want to say I’m doubting you but…”
“You are doubting me,” Taige said.
“She’s a kid,” Nyrene responded. She grimaced and looked at Jillian. “No offense.”
Jillian rolled her eyes. “Anytime somebody says no offense, there’s usually offense.”
“Jillian, I’ve told you about rolling your eyes,” Taige said.
“I’m not even looking at you.” Jillian made a face.
“I can hear it in your voice,” the woman said, glancing at the girl from the corner of her eye. “And you heard me.” Her gaze shifted back to Nyrene. “I know it’s hard to get, but Jillian is…well… If you haven’t seen her in action, you won’t get it. But her gift came on her when she was a small child. Half the cases in recent years that are attributed to me were actually solved because she gave me the lead.”
She laughed at the expression on Nyrene’s face. “And those are just the ones that leaked out into the public eye. There are more that will never see the light of day. She looks, and is currently acting like a normal teenage girl, but she’s seen and dealt with things no seventeen-year-old—hell, no twenty-year— No fifty-seven-year-old should ever have to see.”
Nyrene swallowed, because the expression on Taige’s face had taken on a dark cast. Jillian slid her hand into her mother’s and the two of them shared a private moment.
It was shattered by Dev as he said, “Look, I don’t want to discount you, Jillian…or you, Ms. Morgan, but these characters are showing up out of nowhere. Nyrene’s barely had a chance to give us warning most of the time and we’ve had to haul ass so often, I would have sworn that she had some sort of GPS on her.”
Nyrene couldn’t stop herself from sending him a disgruntled look.
He caught sight of it, too. She could tell by the dull flush that showed up along his cheekbones. He had acted in a way that was almost absurdly gentle ever since he had come to the conclusion that she was telling the truth. Well, save for that one time…
There had been nothing gentle about the way his hands had flown over her body. Nothing gentle in the way his mouth took hers.
She fought the urge to shiver.
“Ah…Nyrene?” Taige said. She coughed, covering her mouth with her fist and slid a look at her daughter. The teenager was standing there with wide eyes and a pink flush to her pretty face.
Nyrene realized she had dropped the shield she had somehow managed to erect and she slammed in back into place.
Jillian shook her head, looking a bit dazed. “I don’t know how you do that. That wall you have is a tight piece of work,” the girl commented, sounding old beyond her years.
“Can you really pick up on everybody?” But she wasn’t looking at Jillian.
Rather, she looked at Taige, and although she had her shield up tight, Taige must have picked up on what she was thinking. Her smile was understanding. “People might not be able to block Jillian, but she can block people. And after a while, once she gets used to somebody, they become background noise to her, even if they are…unusually strong.”
Nyrene shook her head. “Still…all the time?” She tried to imagine being assailed by the images that came at her all the time and she thought she’d go crazy if she had to deal with that.
Something of what she felt must have shown on her face, because Jillian crooked a grin at her. “When you live with it all the time, you learn to cope a lot faster. Really, it’s all I’ve ever known. I don’t remember a time when my mind was completely my own. There’s always been…voices or scenes. Something up here.” She wiggled her fingers near her temple.
Nyrene felt an insane urge to hug the girl.
Unaware of what Nyrene was thinking, she said, “It’s different with you, from what I saw before you shut me out. You’re still hit-or-miss and it seems more…” Jillian paused, clearly searching for the right way to phrase it. “Situational with you. You react to people you know are in danger, and for things that affect you directly.”
“Not always,” Nyrene said, thinking of the reporter. She explained.
“But that did, or would have, affected you. Dev was important to your safety.” Taige glanced at him. “If he had been...arrested, that would have affected you.”
“Arrested, Mom?” Jillian said, her tone sardonic.
She knew, Nyrene realized abruptly. This seventeen-year-old girl knew all the dark, ugly truths that Nyrene had been dealing with. But she was already struggling to deal with what she was learning, what she had already learned, so she pushed that realization to the side. “How could that have affected me?” she asked. She shot Dev a look, then, deciding to say the hell with subtly, she pointed out, “I’m in trouble because of him.”
Dev’s face tightened, but he said nothing.
“There’s a connection, still. Either between you and him,” Taige said, her eyes moving between the two of them tellingly. “Or between you and those who set this reporter up to be killed. I don’t know. You may not ever know. But that connection is there.”
The memory of his hands on her, his skin sliding back and forth over hers, his body so hard, hungry and taut as he rode her, flashed through her mind. But Nyrene quelled the thought before it could lead to another.
“What are we to do?” she asked, voice husky. “I can’t even begin to go back to a normal life right now. I don’t know if I ever can. There are cops looking for me now. And you say that as long as I can stay shielded, these freaks from The Psychic Portal—”
“You’re one of the freaks now, too,” Jillian pointed out.
“I’m not trying to stalk and kidnap myself,” Nyrene replied with a quick glance at the girl. Redirecting her attention back to the other woman, she said, “But I don’t know if I can keep this shield up—I have to concentrate to do it and it’s…” She rubbed her temples. “It’s exhausting.”
She already felt as if she had sand rubbing on the inside of her brain. She’d adjusted to the pressure and fatigue that came with maintaining that window, but she didn’t know how long it would take to adjust to holding this wall that Joss had built inside her mind. She’d done full-body workouts that didn’t wear her out as much as it did to hold up this mental…wall.
“It’s because it’s new.” Taige came closer and held up her hands, palms facing each other. “May I?”
Nyrene eyed her warily. “Any time somebody touches me, weird shit goes off in my head.”
“Did you get weird shit when Joss touched you?” she asked. “Well, other than how he helped you build that wall.”
Nyrene’s lids flickered as she thought back. “Well, no.”
“You won’t with me, neither,” she said. “Promise.”
Cool fingertips touched Nyrene’s temples and Taige gently said, “This ability you have, it requires control—a lot of it. It takes practice, like an athlete learning a new skill or a dancer learning a new routine.”
Taige’s eyes went smoky and opaque. “You are…strong, Nyrene. I can’t believe you’ve been quiet this long.”
Taige blinked and her eyes cleared. “That your gift hasn’t emerged until now. That wreck…” She laughed. “Trauma will do it but whether it was the emotional trauma of finding out about your boyfriend, the emotional trauma from the wreck, the physical trauma from said wreck, or all of the three, something knocked down whatever it was that kept your gift quiet and now it’s like it’s screaming.” Taige lowered her hands and stepped back. “I can help you. And you, in turn, can help me.”
“How can I help you?” Nyrene asked, dismayed.
Taige’s lips curved. “They are hunting you because you sent an email. I’d like you to send another…unshielded. I’ll be there with you, and so will Jillian and Joss.”
“Because we’ve been hunting these sons of bitches for several years now and you’re the one person we’ve come across who has had contact who hasn’t been grabbed by them.”
“You want to set a trap for them,” Nyrene said, her voice raw. “And I’m the bait.”
“In a sense,” Taige agreed. “But you will only be bait in the simplest of terms. Once that email is sent, you will not be anywhere near where they can find you. You’ll be at my facility, protected. I’ll have my people protecting you.”
“Your people,” Dev said slowly. “Does that mean the FBI?”
“No.” Taige slanted a look at him. “I’m not with the FBI anymore. I run a private security group. However, the FBI and I are both interested in apprehending somebody from this group who is attempting to capture you, Nyrene. They are dangerous. They need to be stopped, and you’re quite right. You won’t be safe until that happens.”
“This sounds a lot like blackmail,” Dev said, disgusted. “You’ll offer protection as long as she helps you out.”
“You’re a cop. What protection do you offer material witnesses?” Taige cocked a brow at him. She looked back at Nyrene and said, “I will teach you how to better protect yourself, but I can’t have you at my facility unless you’re willing to help me stop the bloodhounds after you, Nyrene. I won’t endanger the people I have there. Some of them are…fragile. Fragile in ways you wouldn’t understand, and I have a responsibility to them.”
“If you weren’t planning on helping her, why the fuck did you even set up a meeting?” Dev demanded.
“Stop it,” Nyrene said, stepping between them, hands held up. “Just…stop, okay, Dev? She’s right. I hate it, but she’s right. I can’t even begin to think about going back to my life until I know these people aren’t going to be dogging me.” Taking a deep breath, she focused on Taige. “So…what do we do first?”
Joss cleared his throat. “First, we make sure that BOLO is taken care of, then we deal with your little problem in Clary.”
“But…” Nyrene looked from him to Taige, then over at Dev.
Dev stared hard at Joss, though, for a long moment, before nodding. “You said the BOLO was expected to be called off by nightfall. But regardless, cops have ways. Connections.” He looked over at Nyrene. “We have to take care of the cops because, if we don’t, whoever is after you could very well use law enforcement to track you.”