CHAPTER 7: AT FIRST GLANCE

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Uncertainty had strange effects on people. Some fretted. Some made lists. Skylar Walker made art. She ambled upstairs to her bedroom with the impulsive date request hovering around her head like clouds—possibly storm clouds. She wasn't certain. Norma's hesitant 'yes' echoed in her ears, though. Her heartbeat thundered at that.

She settled in the chair at the drafting table, preoccupying herself with a sketch. It was time to interrogate her motives for asking her best friend out. Never the type to avoid confrontation, Skylar preferred to stare her problems in the face until they blurred and new opportunities took shape. Nonetheless, from every angle, this one seemed a bad fix.

Ink unfurled on her paperscreen. She hunched over the desk, framing the emerging art with her arms. Downstairs in the basement, Norma was creating, too.

The thing that irritated Skylar most was Norma's arrogance. The woman thought superior intellect made her invincible. She thought they would walk out of Eutopia when her assignment was complete. Skylar imagined other outcomes, few of them good.

And Magnum Opus was terrible outcome number one. Her elegant fingers clutched and smudged him to life on the screen. A wrinkle crooked her brow. His onyx eyes peered from the blank page. She licked her lips.

Her best friend's plan to tweak the AI to suit their needs was disconcerting. Skylar feared the ramifications of making him smarter, stronger, or whatever other superlative Norma dreamed up. It would just make him more capable of overthrowing them.

Overthrowing her, she corrected herself. She hadn't agreed to help with this mission. On the other hand, saying no to Norma wasn't her forte. Skylar had quit her job, had taken a humble fellowship, and tried to move off-planet, only to end up confined in a house with the person she couldn't resist.

It made for a complicated friendship.

Now, suddenly, Magnum was the thing Norms found irresistible. The reason was a no brainer to Sky. He was sex appeal personified, cut from military cloth with above-average intelligence. A chiseled jawline on a man who could string together two complete sentences? That was Norma's kryptonite. Even if he were human, the tech mogul would pursue him with the same energy.

It had happened with Chaz but look how that turned out.

Skylar sighed as the AI materialized beneath her fingertips. The sketch was in black and white. Empty, hard-edged, dark, questioning. The room sensed her mood. The temperature dropped to cool her feverish flow. She didn't notice. Her heavy breathing lured the hidden sound system to life. Avant-garde music piped around her. She didn't notice, but her breathing slowed. Her brow unkinked.

The soprano voice on the song trilled a flurry of high notes that made her scalp tingle and goosebumps race along her bare arms. She closed her eyes and tilted her head to release the tension building in her spine. And she had asked her out. Why had she asked her best friend out?

Studying her rendition of Magnum, she tossed a fringe of dreadlocks from her umber face and erased tiny mistakes from the sketch no one would notice. Perfection was painstaking. It required accepting errors and finding inspiration in accidents.

Like the night she had met Norma. An accident. Their friendship had sprung from ashes and cinders. Four years ago, they had bumped heads at a function The Walker Foundation was hosting. Skylar could still hear the vapid applause that had greeted the tech mogul's foray into her world.

As the daughter of prominent philanthropists, Sky had been forced to attend. Garbed in a cocktail dress because her mother insisted, she had vowed to keep quiet and go unnoticed until she could escape the swarm of billionaires and socialites.

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