Peri’s eyebrows rose. “You seriously think I’m going to work with you? Right after you told me you think I’m corrupt and a joke?”
“I never said you were a joke.”
“You said I wasn’t a soldier,” she said. “I can’t work with you. You’re too tall to be subtle and you’ll scream like a little boy at the first hint of trouble.”
Brow furrowing, Silas looked her up and down, crossing his arms to make his biceps bulge. “I can take care of myself.”
“You will slow … me … down,” she said, her finger tapping the table in time with her words. “Yeah, I see your pretty muscles, but I bet you can’t run a mile without throwing up.”
His lip twitched. He wasn’t built for speed, and he always felt like a hulk next to her slim quickness—even if his mind was as dexterous as hers. More so, maybe. “I’ll keep up.”
She leaned in, daring him. “I’d be surprised if you’ve ever seen the inside of a firing range, Mr. Muscles. I. Can’t. Use. You.”
Peeved, Silas leaned to within inches of her, his breath held as he quashed the thought that her eyes, a deep hazel that could morph into green depending on the light and her mood, were what had first attracted him to her—and they hadn’t changed. “I’m actually pretty good with a weapon, but I’m not the one in trouble, Ms. Reed. You’ve been drafting, and you don’t even know it.”
She jerked back, her sudden flash of angst making him almost regret his words. Face white, she scanned the noisy coffeehouse. “I have not,” she said, but her hands were under the table, probably holding that pen of hers like the security blanket it was.
“Yes, you have,” he said. “I wasn’t lying when I said I used to work for Opti.”
Peri fixed him with a tight stare. “You trained to be an Opti anchor? You took Opti training and then left them to work for the alliance? Are you kidding me?”
Silas forced his hands to unclench. “Most of us at the alliance worked for Opti at some point. Until we realized it was corrupt to the core and left.”
“You washed out,” she said, and his eyes darted to hers.
“I quit,” he said tightly.
She was looking at him in distrust, but under it he could see her desperate need. He’d been playing on all the wrong triggers. She needed him like she needed a knife and a pistol. She needed him like a black suit and a fast car. He was a tool, a safety net. And right now, seeing the fear in the back of her eyes, he knew she’d do anything to keep him from walking out that door.
“Prove it,” she challenged him, but he could tell she badly wanted him to succeed.
“What, here?” he said, his attention traveling over the noisy throng. Peri bit her bottom lip. “You don’t have to bring it back, just tell me where I drafted. What did I forget?”
He almost had her, and he ran a quick hand over his hair as if thinking it over.
“Fine,” she said, and she stood, shocking him even as she wavered. “This conversation is over. Can I have your tablet, please?”
She stuck her hand out, expecting him to give it to her, but she froze when he took her hand in his instead. “You were seen leaving the bathroom,” he said, and she stared at him, fear in her eyes as his voice took on the singsong pattern of an anchor bringing back a memory. “It took three guards, but they got you down, and then you jumped. In the draft, you tripped a businessman into another to distract security and avoid them. That was right before you stole the coat. They caught you again at the top of the escalator until you drafted and hid at the jewelry stand until the family with the stroller showed up and you went downstairs with them.”
Slowly Peri sat, her hand loose in his grip.
“It took me a few minutes to get downstairs, but the next time you drafted was when Allen saw you at the coffee counter.”
Clearly scared, she pulled her hand away. “I didn’t draft at the coffee counter.”
“It was tiny,” he said, pity reaching his voice despite his intentions. “A skip, if you like, turning away at just the right moment in the draft so he didn’t see you. Just now, before I sat down, you skipped about three seconds so that kid in the corner who looks like he hasn’t shaved in a week wouldn’t bump you. Peri, you escaped Opti. You’re good, but it would have been impossible without drafting, and you know it.”
It was hard to tear her down like this, especially knowing how fragile she was, and Silas felt like an ass as he took in her pale face. “If you’re lying …,” she threatened.
His anger was gone, sponged away by her fear. “Where are you staying? I’ll bring all three jumps back. If you like what you see, we can work together. If you still don’t trust me—”
“Trust has nothing to do with it,” she interrupted. “You want to shut down Opti.”
“Trust has everything to do with it,” he said bitterly, and her eyes dropped. “Finding out what happened up there is the only way you’re going to clear your name. What happens after that is secondary. Let’s go.”
Chin lifted, she looked at him. “I haven’t said I’d work with you.”
“Not with your lips, no.”
She grimaced, clearly thinking. “I don’t have a place yet,” she said softly.
He had her, maybe not for anything longer than an hour, but he had her. He stood. “I do.” Feeling light-headed, Silas took up his hat and started for the door. Her Opti conditioning never to be alone would get her moving faster than anything else. Still, it didn’t feel as good as he thought it would when she closed out her session on her borrowed Internet link and got to her feet.