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Nicholas Chien searched the popular nightclub for the one who hunted him. A hunter himself, he knew the feeling of being stalked. Unlike the humans surrounding him, he paid close attention to his instincts. After all, they had kept him alive for over a century.
His eyes locked onto a woman who watched with the intensity of a falcon. His gaze flicked to her right and then left, recognizing the pack of three femalesall with their attention pinned on him.
Humans. Each one lovely, young and in heat. He could not help but smile, for he had only to pick one, unless they were open to sharing. Maka bless modern women.
He left his half-finished glass of Johnny Walker Blue on the bar and stalked toward his huntresses, closing the distance between himself and paradise. Music throbbed like a communal heartbeat and strobe lights flashed in weak imitation of the Thunderbirds' lightning.
All three straightened at his approach, standing in a cluster around a tall circular table that held their poser drinks, three martinis. It was hard to suppress his grin of anticipation.
The tallest and strongest had dark eyes and mocha skin. She had used black liner to accentuate her sloping eyes. The gold chain about her neck held a single black crystal bead that sparkled from its place in the cleft of her ample cleavage. This one wore a very short skirt, revealing long, strong legs that he anticipated wrapped about his back.
Beside her, stood a petite blonde who had teased her hair to add height. Her low-cut pink blouse showed her form to be sleek and athletic. She glanced from him to the tallest, as if seeking permission to advance. She licked her lips, perhaps admiring what she might not taste, as she struggled with her position as second to the tallest. She shifted her weight back and forth. Were she a wolf, he would anticipate a leadership challenge, but humans settled such battles more subtly. Perhaps he would be the one worth fighting for.
Flanking the alpha's opposite side was another brunette. Their eyes met. She was used to being overlooked, although she had the most interesting figure, with full, heavy breasts, a narrow waist and wide, curving hips. She glanced from him to the other women, already deferring her authority. As the group's beta, she would do as the others bid. That might work to his advantage.
He reached them now, smiling as he nodded his hello, keeping his eyes on the alpha female. "Did you want to speak to me?" Her sensual smile rewarded his direct approach. "We have a bet on you."
"You're what's interesting," said the blonde, her hand already on his shoulder, claiming him.
The alpha flashed her a look and the hand slid away. Not ready for a challenge just yet.
"We were wondering if you prefer blondes or brunettes. I'm Allie, by the way," said the alpha.
He pressed a hand to his chest and gave a little bow. "Nick. And I prefer both."
The beta's mouth rounded into an O, while the other two exchanged knowing looks that told him this was familiar territory.
"Do you?" asked Allie as she laid a hand on his shoulder, circling him. Her fingers dragged across his back and down his arm as she measured his strength. Nick watched the blonde, who did not take her eyes off her rival. Neither of the other women moved until Allie had linked her arm in his, claiming him. Only then did the emerging alpha move.
"I'm Krista," said the blonde, flanking him on the right and stroking his biceps.
The beta stayed where she was, caressing him only with her eyes.
"Would you ladies like a drink?"
"Love one. I have a full bar at my place," offered Allie as her long, artificial nails dug into his arm.
Nicholas flexed his muscles beneath her grip as a slow smile spread over his face. "Private party sounds good."
He was always up for such a diversion, especially in the winter, when the nights were long and lonely.
Allie signaled the waitress. Nick slid a single hundred-dollar bill from his money clip onto the waitress's tray.
Allie's eyes glittered in a way that made Nick wonder if perhaps these ladies were pros. Money was not an issue, but it did run counter to his loose moral code to pay for what he could find for free.
Allie smiled and slipped a hand into the gap at the collar of his black oxford shirt and unbuttoned the top one.
Great Mystery! Human females were a spirited lot. He thought of his friend Sebastian and all the lovely women his friend had never met, because he lived like a hermit in the woods. Sebastian was disapproving of Nick's philandering. So it irked Nick that his buddy had still somehow managed to find himself a life mate in Michaela Proud.
Nick fought the twinge of jealousy. Silly to begrudge Sebastian one woman when he had three willing partners before him. Still, Michaela was unique enough to make a confirmed bachelor envious. She had accepted his friend even after seeing him change from a man to a bear, and that did not happen every century. As if this were not gift enough, his friend described a connection, a reading of his mate's thoughts and emotions, something Nick had never experienced.
He imagined what would happen if he showed these females what he truly was. No, his way was best. Never let a human see you transform, never overstay your welcome. The rules served him well for there was no worse trap than giving your heart to a woman.
"Ready?" asked Allie, pursing her full lips.
Nick found her artful pout did not have the desired effect, for it irritated rather than inspired him. He disliked lipstick as well as the tangy aroma of foundation and powder. Most perfumes overwhelmed his sensitive sense of smell.
Now, for instance, he noted the acrid scent of the chemicals of her deodorant activated by her sweat, the mint mouthwash, the almond fragrance clinging to her hair, remnants of shampoo or rinse, a perfumed talcum powder and even the tanned leather of her purse. There was something wintergreen in her purse, likely gum or breath mints. Human females bathed themselves in every perfume but the most potent of all was the scent of their arousal. He sensed, in Allie, the first blossom of the lust she planned to share.
Her second reached the waitress and made sure Allie saw her slip the change into her bra. Her eyes set in a challenge directed at Allie, but the alpha chose to ignore her defiance, letting her keep the cash.
"Shall we?" said Alpha.
Nick helped her with her coat and then assisted her blonde second.
Beta hovered. If she had had a tail, it most certainly would have been tucked tightly between her legs.
Alpha paused and cast her a backward glance. "You coming, Becca?"
Becca hesitated, then followed the pack. Funny, she seemed physically the strongest, but that was not always what mattered in the battle for dominance.
They cleared the bar and stood on the sidewalk, still wet from the cold New York City rain. Nick's breath came in white puffs of condensing air. He wore no coat, nor did he need one. His leather jacket would keep him warm since it was, in fact, part of his own furry hide. Nick was of the wolf clan, and like his brothers, he could stand the bitter cold.
Even at this late hour, cabs lined up, hoping for a fare. Allie hailed one and then slid into the back, dragging him along. Krista tucked in beside him, leaving Beta the front seat with the cabbie.
"Second Avenue and Eighteenth," said Allie.
By the time they reached their destination, the woman had him half-undressed and hard as iron. He buttoned his trousers before exiting to follow the giggling women. The streetlights were switching off as night gave way to dawn but for him, the night was still young.
Allie paused to punch in a code on the entry box, releasing the heavy metal door. She turned, leaned against the panic bar and posed, giving him a come-hither stare. When he didn't move, she grabbed the lapel of his collar and dragged him along. They passed the rows of silver mailboxes.
Krista hit the elevator button. The doors of the waiting car creaked open and Beta stepped in first. Nick faced the panel of buttons.
"What floor, ladies?"
No answer. The dank odor of decay reached him first, like the stink of an animal rotting by the roadside. He whirled to face them: these three women now stared at him with eyes that glowed yellow as a patient dying of liver disease. The stench of illness and death clung to the three possessed women.
Like all of his kind, he could not sense ghosts until they took possession of a body, but he knew with certainty that they had followed him. How many more waited for other victims to capture?
Krista pointed something at him. He threw up his arm but not in time to prevent some of the Mace from reaching his eyes. In this small space, all the women should have been affected, but it did not stop them. Allie slapped a handcuff on his wrist and clamped the other end to the metal railing circling the elevator as the door slid closed. None of the women selected a floor, so the elevator remained suspended in place, trapping him.
His eyes streamed with water as one of the three kicked him in the ribs, sending him to his knees. A barrage of blows followed. They tore at his face with their long acrylic nails, gouging valleys in his skin and tearing out hunks of his hair.
More kicks rained down upon his torso until he felt a rib crack. He struggled to his feet, still blinded by the chemicals burning the sensitive tissues of his eyes.
He had one chance of escapeno choice. He stretched from the rail, opening his eyes past the burning, and jabbed at the button that retracted the double doors.
They swished open. He reached for his necklace made of the teeth of wolves and clasped the talisman concentrating his power. All Skinwalkers needed to hide their animal coat when in human form, and like many of his kind, he preferred to hide it in plain sight as clothing or jewelry. Instantly, the electric energy coursed through him as he changed from man to wolf, his amulet reformed into his fur once more. His paw slipped from the handcuff and he ran out the door and down the hallway, his claws gripping the industrial carpet. At the outer door, he lifted his front paws to hit the panic bar and then charged down the sidewalk. He barely made it past the building when the rush of adrenaline deserted him, replaced by pain. Blood bubbled into his throat. His rib must be tearing at his lung.
"Don't lose him," shouted Allie.
He charged around the corner of the building and transformed to human form as he called to the sky for help. Above him, lightning crackled at the arrival of the whirlwind. Inside, the immortal Thunderbeings swept over the tall buildings, creating a tornado that touched down before him with the precision of a scalpel. These great creatures had long ago given their favor to his people, agreeing to carry them from danger.
"Quick, he's right there. Catch the wind with him."
The swirling storm descended, bringing stinging bits of ice as it captured Nick. He called his friend's name, knowing that Sebastian could heal him, but as he did so, he heard Krista's delighted scream.
"He's bringing us to her!"
All three women stood together, gazing skyward, eyes gleaming like yellow demons. Then the ghosts released their hosts, causing all the women to fall to the pavement.
And he understood. They had not come to kill himthey had allowed him to escape. The ghosts did not want his mangy hide. They only used him to get to Sebastian, and to Michaela.
Nagi was hunting her again.
The Thunderbirds scooped him up, the beating of their mighty wings making the wind that lifted him and roared like a freight train. He shouted a warning, begging them to change their course, to bring him away from his friends. But the lightning cracked with earsplitting force and he feared they could not hear him.
Had the ghosts succeeded in joining the Whirlwind?
His head swam as he coughed up blood into the freezing air.
Still he cried his warning, growing dizzy from the pain. Nicholas struggled to remain conscious. He had to warn them. He had to tell Sebastian.
His vision blurred as he prayed he would not be the instrument that brought the Ruler of the Circle of Ghosts to his friends' doorstep.