Either way, his window was closing. Opti might know her conditioning, but he knew her soul, and he was counting on that to keep him one step ahead of them.
“University Dregs,” he whispered, feet scuffing to a halt as he looked past the crackling e-board shorting out and into the modern if sparsely decorated café full of students soaking up the free hotspot. “Thank God,” he whispered, seeing her sitting alone at a small glass table, that same black coat he’d seen her steal at the airport draped over her shoulders. Her head was bent low over the glass screen built into the top, a ceramic mug of coffee and that man’s hat beside her. Even as he watched, she tapped a new phrase into the search engine and hit the ENTER key with enough force to make the screen phase and her coffee ripple. Clearly things weren’t going well, and she ran her hand through her short hair in a gesture of frustration as she looked up.
Her expression blanked when she realized two young men across the store were gesturing for her attention. Her model’s cheekbones, long neck, perfect complexion, and toned dancer’s body had gotten her noticed, and he shook his head in memory when that full sweet smile of hers blossomed with just the right amount of annoyance to convince without ticking them off. Falling against each other, they dramatically pretended to be crushed.
Okay. He’d found her. Getting her to trust him wasn’t going to happen, but he knew Peri would risk a lot if she was hungry, tired, and dirty. She looked all three.
Taking a deep breath, he entered, head down as he went to the to-go counter and out of her direct sight instead of ordering from the store tablets at the tables. Peri looked half starved, and he added a muffin to his medium, straight-up black coffee, taking it in a metallic-footed store mug instead of a to-go cup. Turning, he unbuttoned his coat in the warmth and noise. Peri was scrolling through a list of recent local crimes, choosing one before sitting back and sipping her coffee while the screen loaded. She looked frustrated and—so well hidden he almost missed it—scared out of her mind.
What am I doing? he asked himself as the barista put his paper-wrapped muffin on the counter; peeved, he vowed she wasn’t going to get one bite. She’d made her choice. He wasn’t her anchor to coddle her, reinforcing the pap that Opti filled her head with that she deserved it by right.
And yet, seeing her last night, numb and in shock from something she didn’t recall, had shaken him. She was so rare, so fragile in her uniqueness—one in a hundred thousand able to twist time, and even more rare in having the skill set and drive to use it. It had been a painful relief when she’d gotten snarky, hiding her fear that she’d been cut adrift again. Even more obvious was that she didn’t know him.
Closing his eyes, he exhaled to calm himself, not wanting to add to Peri’s mood. She looked as irate as he felt, tapping the store-supplied stylus against the touch screen with a frustrated quickness. She hadn’t changed at all—just as moody and irritating as ever. Her paranoia would be in overdrive—for good reason. He couldn’t simply walk up to her and tell her they had to work together to end the very organization she depended upon. She’d never believe him.
Silas’s jaw clenched when someone knocked into her. And then he stiffened when, with a snap, the room reset and the last four seconds replayed, Peri adroitly shifting in her chair at the right instant to remain untouched. Time caught up, meshed, and he shook himself, a cold feeling slipping through him when Peri, oblivious to the skip-hop, leaned forward to read the screen.
Uneasy, he pushed off from the counter. He’d watched her jump three times to escape the airport. It was doubtful she even knew she had drafted. Her mind was flirting with collapse, and that he felt responsible bothered him. It had been too large a task; too much of her life had needed to be erased.
It was her choice, he reminded himself, but he still felt betrayed as he came closer, halting just within her range of sight and waiting to be noticed. Power and recognition meant more to her than he liked, but her determined drive had drawn him regardless. Even now, years later, he could feel it, and his jaw clenched.
As if sensing it, she looked up, her hazel eyes and long lashes vivid against the heavy eyeliner she’d used to muddle any facial recognition software. Her shock melted into a quickly quashed panic. She was afraid of him. “You,” she said, eyes darting to the perimeter for others even as she blanked her screen. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s just me. I’m alone. You don’t have to run.”
“You’re alliance, aren’t you?” she asked. Nodding, Silas set his coffee down, the electrical field in the base engaging the table’s heating circuits with an audible click. Her eyes were determinedly not on the muffin, but they lingered on his tablet tucked under an arm, and he set it tauntingly on the table between them. Immediately her gaze rose from it, traveling over his pressed shirt tucked into his high-end jeans, then dropping to his leather boots and belt, and finally his coat. Her eyebrows arched in question; he shifted his coat so she could see he had no weapon.
“I do so love the scent of imported cashmere,” she said. “Armani?”
He dropped his hat on the table, annoyed that she’d found the one nerve he had and stomped on it. So he was a clotheshorse. So what? “So you’ll understand if you dump your coffee on me like you did Allen why I’ll throw mine in your face,” he warned as he took the hard-backed chair across from her. Still she said nothing, staring at him with that assessing gaze, and he ran a hand over his short-cropped hair to smooth it in unease.