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New York City, 1926
Griffin Durant stepped out of the elevator, strode across the polished lobby floor and slipped through the revolving doors, fortifying himself for the assault of smell and sound that crouched on Broad Street like an attentive predator awaiting its next victim. He pushed his hat lower on his head, wrinkling his nose against the acrid blend of gasoline, fermenting refuse and human sweat. His ears buzzed with the grinding of engines and the wildly varying pitch of human voices…but, as always, it was only a matter of moments before he was able to bring his senses under control and face the world with reasonable calm.
A hand tugged at his coat, and he looked down at the smudged, familiar face of the corner newsboy.
"Paper, Mr. Durant?"
Griffin reached inside his pocket and pulled out a coin. "Here you are, Bobby," he said, tucking the paper under his arm.
Bobby stared at the coin and gave a joyful whoop. "Gee, thanks, Mr. Durant!"
Griffin sighed. It took so little to make a difference in this boy's life, yet he was only one of millions who called this city their home…teeming multitudes cast up on the shores of the biggest city in America. A metropolis that was rapidly becoming a place of corruption, violence and sudden death.
You could have chosen another city, he thought.
A city without such a thriving bootleg trade, for instance—though one couldn't escape the traffic in illicit drink anywhere in the United States. New York's business was simply bigger and more notorious than in any other municipality except Chicago.
You could have stayed in England. But then Gemma might never have come to know her nativecountry. And he would never have escaped the reminders of the Great War that haunted him every time he read the latest news from Europe.
Griffin shook off the crawling sensation that raised the hairs on the back of his neck, took a firm grip on his briefcase and flagged down a taxi to take him to East Forty-second Street near Grand Central Station. The cabbie let him off a few blocks from the dressmaker's shop. As he walked, Griffin dispassionately examined the women with whom he shared the sidewalk: soberly dressed dowagers with small dogs clutched in their arms; working girls in conservative suits; tycoons' daughters in afternoon frocks from Worth or Chanel…and the flappers in their brazenly short dresses, daring anything male to gawk at their rolled stockings and rouged lips.
Frowning in disapproval, Griffin averted his gaze. Thank God Gemma had only left her English boarding school a few months ago and hadn't yet been exposed to what passed for fashion among the fast set. The gown he'd ordered for her birthday was elegant, expensive and eminently tasteful. He had meant to commission a frock from Molyneux, but there simply hadn't been time to have anything made overseas. With any luck, Gemma wouldn't notice the difference.
A short walk brought him to the couturière's. He summoned up a smile for the salesgirl who hurried to meet him.
"Mr. Durant," she said, "you've come for the gown?"
"I have, Miss Jones. Is Madame Aimery available?"
"Of course, Mr. Durant. If you will excuse me…" She vanished through the back door, leaving Griffin alone with the shop's other customer.
The young woman was slim and pretty, her warm brown skin a pleasant contrast to the pale green of her frock. Griffin tipped his hat to her, and she smiled in return.
"A very pleasant day, Mr. Durant," she said. Griffin started. "I beg your pardon…have we met before?"
She laughed, a soft, rich chuckle. "I heard Miss Jones speak your name…and who hasn't heard of Mr. Griffin Durant?"
"Am I as notorious as all that, Miss…"
"Moreau. Louise Moreau." She offered her hand, and he took it. Her grip was firm. "Your notoriety is of the salutary variety, Mr. Durant. I—"
She broke off as Madame Aimery emerged from the back room with Miss Jones and another assistant, both assistants laden with ribbon-tied boxes.
"I beg your pardon for the wait, Monsieur Durant," Madame Aimery said in her light French accent.
"No trouble at all," Griffin said. He glanced at Miss Moreau. "Please attend to this young lady first. I'm in no hurry."
Madame Aimery gestured to her assistant, who approached Miss Moreau with three wide boxes. "Good afternoon, Miss Moreau," she said briskly. "Would you care to examine the dresses?"
Miss Moreau smiled slightly, matching Madame Aimery's almost imperceptible coolness. "That will not be necessary. I'm certain that Miss Chase will find the dresses very much to her liking."
"Mademoiselle Chase must not hesitate to call if we may be of further service."
"I shall so inform her." Miss Moreau took the boxes and tucked them under her arms. "Thank you for your time, Madame Aimery."
The couturière nodded and signaled Miss Jones to fetch the remaining box. "Monsieur Durant—"
"A moment, if you would. Miss Moreau…" The young woman paused at the door. "Mr. Durant?"
"May I call a taxi for you?"
She smiled, her eyes crinkling at the corners. "Thanks so much, Mr. Durant, but I'm to meet my employer at a café down the street. The boxes aren't heavy."
He moved to open the door for her. "If you're quite certain…"
"I'm stronger than I look." She winked at him and swept through the door.
Madame Aimery gave a discreet cough. "Monsieur Durant, if you are ready…"
Griffin accepted Gemma's gown, paid in full and escaped into the cool breeze of twilight. Tall buildings cast long shadows that darkened the streets well before the sun went down, but for Griffin it was still as bright as noon. He considered hailing a taxi to take him to Penn Station, but he found that he, like Miss Moreau, preferred to walk.
With the coming of dusk, the dark-loving creatures crawled out of the woodwork: bootleggers and racketeers strutting out on the town with their painted floozies; truck drivers whose innocuous-looking vehicles contained a wealth of contraband cargo; laughing young men and their short-skirted dates seeking the latest hot spot to indulge in their passion for illegal booze; crooked policemen patrolling their beats, ready to lend their protection to the "businesses" that so generously augmented their meager salaries.
Griffin remained relaxed but alert, sifting the air for the scents of those denizens of night he preferred to avoid. He almost missed the faint cry from the alley as he passed. The smell of fear stopped him in his tracks; he tossed Gemma's box among a heap of empty crates at the alley's mouth and plunged into the dim canyon, unbuttoning his coat as he ran.
Two men in dirty clothing were circling a slight figure crouched between a pair of overflowing garbage cans, knives clenched in their fists. One of them looked up as Griffin approached. He grabbed his companion by the sleeve. "Joe," he hissed, "we got company."
Griffin slowed to a walk, keeping on eye on the muggers as he edged toward the garbage cans. "Are you all right?" he called.
"Yes," came the muffled female voice.
Joe's friend glared at Griffin, passing his knife from hand to hand. "What we got here, Joe? Some cake-eater who's lost his way to the Cotton Club?"
"Sure looks that way, Fritz," Joe said. He rubbed his thumb along the ugly scar that ran from the corner of his eye to his chin. "Listen, chump, and take some friendly advice. Get outta here and mind your own business."
"That's right," Joe said with a grin, "or me 'n' Fritz'll carve you up real nice."
"It seems we're at an impasse," Griffin said. "But I'll give you one chance to avoid possible serious injury. Leave now."
Joe and Fritz exchanged incredulous glances. Fritz dropped his shoulders and hung his head as if in defeat. Joe lowered his knife. They held their submissive poses for all of five seconds before Fritz attacked.
Griffin closed his eyes. It would have been so easy then to become the wolf, and take these hoodlums down with teeth and claws and sheer lupine strength. So easy to lapse into the killer's mind that had so often consumed him during the War, when he had taken revenge on those who'd slain his men in battle.
But he wouldn't give in. Not this time. Not while he had the safety of the civilized world around him.
Griffin caught Fritz's arm on its downward swing, applied a little pressure and neatly snapped the hoodlum's wrist. Fritz's shriek filled the alley like a siren. Griffin kicked his knife away and gently sidestepped Joe's charge. He slipped up behind Joe before the mugger could catch his balance, seized his waist-band and collar and tossed him into a thick heap of refuse piled in the corner.
"I'll kill her!"
Griffin looked up. Fritz was standing with one arm hanging limp at his side and the other wrapped around the young woman's throat, the edge of a switchblade pressed against her delicate skin.
The victim was none other than Miss Louise Moreau. She met Griffin's gaze, her eyes brave and calm in spite of her precarious situation. Griffin nodded slightly and returned his attention to Fritz. "Let her go," he said softly, "and I may let you live." Fritz tried to laugh and only managed a squeak.
"Make one move," he growled, "and I'll slit her throat."
"You'll do nothing of the kind," Griffin said. "You see, you're much too slow to stop me, Fritz. I'll reach you before you can so much as twitch your little finger."
"You're crazy." Fritz licked his lips. "I've got—" He never finished his sentence. Griffin crossed the space between them in one leap, wrenched the switchblade from Fritz's hand and flung him against the brick wall. Fritz slumped to the ground. Griffin grabbed Miss Moreau just as she began to fall and guided her to one of the empty crates.
"Sit down, Miss Moreau," he said. "I'll make sure these men are incapable of any further mischief."
Miss Moreau took a deep breath. "Thank you so much, Mr. Durant."
He squeezed her arm and walked back into the shadows, his legs shaking with reaction from the fight and the memories it had evoked. Joe still lay unconscious in the refuse heap; Griffin found a bit of rope and tied his hands behind his back. A moaning Fritz lay where he'd fallen, nursing his wrist. He wouldn't be molesting anyone soon.
Just as he finished tying Fritz's ankles together, Griffin sensed a sudden, unexpected motion behind him. He jumped to his feet and found himself staring into the concealed face of a woman, her head and body swathed in dark veils and a black velvet coat that fell to her ankles. Her tantalizing scent seeped into Griffin's skin and raced through his blood like a dangerous drug.
"Lou," the woman said, crouching to take Miss Moreau's hands, "are you all right?"
Miss Moreau passed a shaking hand over her hair. "I'm fine, Allie. Thanks to this gentleman."
The woman—Allie—scrutinized Miss Moreau's face and touched the narrow line of blood at the base of her neck. "They hurt you."
"It's nothing. I'd just like to go home."
"Of course. Just give me a minute." Allie rose, glanced toward the hobbled men and then fixed her attention on Griffin. "I owe you one, mister," she said in a voice half silk and half steel, "but I can handle it from here."
Griffin shook himself—hard. "I beg your pardon, Miss—"
"You don't have to beg anything. Just leave the rest to me."
His equilibrium somewhat restored, Griffin turned back to Miss Moreau. "Is this the employer of whom you spoke?"
"Yes." She began to rise. "Mr. Durant, may I present Miss Allegra Chase. Allegra—"
"Sit down, Lou, before you fall down," Miss Allegra Chase said sharply. She faced Griffin again. "What's your name?"
He tipped his hat, not without a touch of irony. "Griffin Durant."
"Oh, yes…the morally upright multimillionaire." Her mockery belied her terse thanks. "Well, Mr. Du-rant, if you'd like to keep playing the gentleman, you could do me a favor and escort Lou out to the street until I've finished here."
Griffin's bemusement turned to foreboding. "Finished with what, Miss Chase?"
"Merely what you started. Making sure these hoodlums don't try this kind of thing again."
Griffin stood very still, studying Miss Chase with astonishment. Such a casual reference to confronting a pair of street toughs would ordinarily have seemed absurd coming from a female swathed in a trailing black coat and tottering on high-heeled pumps. She was petite, her head hardly reaching his shoulder, yet the swiftness of her appearance and the way she'd taken him by surprise spoke volumes; he'd been caught off guard that way only a few times in his life, and never by an ordinary woman.
Nevertheless… "I would prefer not to leave you alone, Miss Chase," he said firmly.
The blue-green eyes behind her veil glinted red. "Are your kind always so protective of people they've never met?"
Your kind. So she knew, as she must realize that he recognized her inhuman nature.
"I don't regard a situation like this as a matter of species," he said. "I wouldn't leave any woman with men such as these…not even one of your kind."
Miss Chase feigned surprise. "My kind, huh? What do you suppose he means by that, Lou?" She took Griffin's elbow, sending an almost electric current through his arm, and drew him aside.
"Come on, Mr. Durant," she said, purring his name.
"Do you really think I can't put a scare into a couple of humans?"
Griffin shivered as he felt the stirrings of physical sensations he usually kept under strict control. He remembered when his father had told him how leeches attracted their prey: something in their smell had an overwhelmingly erotic effect on humans, enticing them as certain carnivorous plants lured hapless insects into their gullets. Griffin had never had occasion to witness the phenomenon himself, but now it was all too evident that what worked on humans could also affect loups-garous.
His mind, however, was still clear enough to recognize that Miss Chase's seductiveness was a pretense. She couldn't help herself, any more than she could help preying on hapless humans. As little as Griffin knew about the female of the vampire species, he presumed they were driven by the same instincts as their male counterparts.