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Poppy Fortune edged through the crowd of partygoers in the spectacular St. Louis Street home of Louisiana senatorial hopeful Ward Bienville. She had just arrived—very late—but the only thing she knew for certain was that she wanted to escape again.
That was out of the question. She was there because she had to get out among people in the know. The hints and clues she needed would not be found by spending all her spare time alone or with her family.
Months earlier Poppy had made a foolish mistake but she had tried to put it right, and now, since the man whose forgiveness she wanted most despised her, she was determined to dig her way out of the mess by making herself invaluable. Poppy was set on finding a way to help solve the growing threat New Orleans faced—even if the citizens didn't seem to know its magnitude. She might not be as strong a paranormal talent as her three brothers, or some of the others they knew, but she had an unusual skill that might save all of them.
Familiar faces circulated around her, people she had seen at her family's club, Fortunes, and in photos from society events. Poppy didn't see anyone she would call a friend. She did get distant glimpses of one or two of Ward's close advisors among a tight group of people at the far end of the room.
What she did see, bursting from among the crowd, were more superalpha brain clusters than she had ever seen in one place. In fact, she had never seen more than one at a time and very few of those. Okay, maybe just one or two altogether. But she frequently located clusters of superior but lesser strengths than these, and she translated the motives that drove the host minds. Love, hate, avarice were all very common. There was a very uncommon degree of heightened stimulation in this room.
Slowly, swallowing hard to moisten her dry throat, she picked out first one, then another person with the telltale glowing chartreuse circle pulsing amid tight clumps of shocking violet spheres no bigger than fine dots. There were four superalphas, two men and two women and she didn't know any of them.
They all had the same emotional trigger.
They were desperate. They wanted revenge and power. They wanted their own way.
They were afraid of failure.
She turned aside, breaking the intensely uncomfortable contacts. Of course there were strong-minded people present, ambitious people. After all, only those interested in shaping politics and events would come….
She was here because she and Ward Bienville had met at Fortunes, which she managed for the family, and he had behaved as if she were his personal goddess ever since. Gifts, phone calls several times a day, invitations to accompany him to faraway places and to be at his side in just about everything he did. Despite not being wildly attracted to him, Poppy was a little flattered by Ward's attention. That could be because her life felt like one big, disappointing flop.
And it made her mad. Sure, she had done something seriously wrong and come close to hurting innocent people, but she was sorry. She would never stop being sorry, but things had turned out fine for her brother Ben and Willow Millet, his Bonded partner as the Millet family referred to making a lifetime commitment. Other people got second chances so why not her? The answer made her eyes sting. The one person she really wanted to be with was unlikely ever to forgive what she had almost caused.
Ward was fun to be with, his charisma and drive fascinated her, but she wasn't falling in love with him. She wouldn't allow herself to think too hard about the man she did want. But there was another reason for her hanging around with the senatorial hopeful—she was aura sensitive and not in the simple way the uninitiated thought of the gift.
Poppy could see brain patterns like the ones that had just shocked her—but usually much more ordinary patterns. They emitted heat that created a spectrum of pulsing colors, some so brilliant they hurt her eyes.
Ward Bienville had the kind of wide circle of friends and acquaintances that brought her in contact with artists, professionals, industrialists, financiers, people with the will and capability to achieve. And among these the brain patterns were the most diverse she had seen in one place. She had even seen one or two she could not type.
Paranormals were a different matter. Poppy longed to know what their brain patterns might look like but they were either absent or not apparent to her.
If paranormals showed their brain patterns to anyone, it wasn't Poppy and she had tried hard to see them.
A brunette with a voice like Diana Krall sat at the piano wearing a skimpy silver dress. The bottom of the skirt didn't reach the edge of the piano bench, and the bodice hung on to the tips of her breasts as if glued there. But she could sing, play and she was beautiful.
Ward was always surrounded with beautiful people, male and female, which made Poppy a little uneasy about holding her own in such company. She wasn't a shrinking violet but neither was she vain. Her own looks were complimented often enough, and some expert opinions had assured her she had a killer figure, but since Ward could have anyone he wanted, why her?
More important than any reservations she had was the opportunity to mix with the kind of New Orleans citizens the Embran were known to prefer.
This was the first time she'd been to Ward's home. Not that she had not been invited—frequently.
Aubusson rugs graced dark, glinting wooden floors. Gilt-framed mirrors tossed around images of New Orleans's rich and famous, the glitterati of the city. French Empire chandeliers, their lights supported by gold swans, and a series of Baccarat crystal wall sconces brought blinding prisms searing from the women's jewelry.
"Ms. Fortune?" A white-jacketed waiter at her elbow offered her champagne, and she took a glass from his tray. He bowed and gave her a serious, deferential look.
French doors stood open to the gallery. Poppy peered outside and found what she expected; it was empty. No guests could bear to risk missing a little of Ward's golden attention. So far she had managed to stay out of his line of sight but she already knew he had been asking if anyone had seen her. She wouldn't be free of his attention much longer. She had ignored three calls from him on her cell phone, and when he asked why she had not picked up, which he would, she intended to be honest and tell him she had needed some solitude.
Poppy smiled a little. Ward would only be more anxious for her approval if she thwarted him occasionally. He expected to get what he wanted in all things.
She stepped into the warm, fragrant night and closed her eyes for an instant. The gallery was dimly lit and relatively peaceful, despite the noise behind her.
When she approached the grillwork railing, cold slipped over her skin Her heart speeded up and she wrinkled her brow. Rather than finding peace in the open air, agitation exploded through her. Sweat broke out along her spine and between her breasts. Her brow was instantly damp.
Voices rose from the street below—laughter, high-pitched female yells punctuated by male bellowing. St. Louis wasn't a main party street. People tended to wander through on their way to Bourbon Street and the center of the French Quarter. The group down there went on their way and relative quiet filled in behind them.
Suffused light showed through shutters at the windows opposite. Overhead, blood-edged inky clouds slunk across a thin white moon.
Breath caught in her throat.
She wasn't alone.
Champagne slopped from the glass and over her trembling hand. Of course she was alone. She looked right and left, peered into every corner. Nothing on the gallery moved other than hanging flowers caught by the faint breeze.
"Hi, Poppy. You seem edgy," a familiar deep voice said.
Poppy jumped and her knees locked.
Sykes Millet wasn't a man she would fail to recognize, even in darkness. "What are you doing here?" she said. "You weren't here seconds ago."
"Of course I was," he said with a hint of laughter in his voice. "I saw you come out but you seemed preoccupied. I didn't want to make you jump."
He had done that anyway.
Very tall, his black hair slightly wavy and grown past his collar, he sauntered toward her from the left, from the farthest reaches of the gallery. He wore a tux. She saw the snowy shine of his shirt in the gloom. With his jacket pushed back and both hands in his pants pockets, he took his time reaching her, enough time to give her a chance to consider fleeing inside.
"Nice dress," he said, arriving in front of her. His eyes passed over her body in a way that made her feel naked—or wish she were.
Poppy turned very, very hot. "Thanks."
"Where have you been hiding yourself?"
"I've been around." And she was surprised he would know or care where she was.
"You spent time in northern California with your folks."
The glow from inside the condo illuminated his face. Every feature had its own shadow. Winging black brows, heavy lashes around his eyes, high, sharp cheekbones and a square jaw. And his mouth. The outline showed clearly, a fuller bottom lip and corners that tilted up a little even when he was quite serious. He was serious now but she saw him suck a long breath.
Sykes Millet was something else.
"How long have you been back?" he asked, and she realized she hadn't responded to his last remark.
"Months," she said. "I was only away for about a week. The club needs me around."
She was, Sykes decided, thinking about the last time they met when she had confessed to him how she had tried to break up Ben Fortune and Sykes's sister Willow. "I think Liam and Ethan need you, too," he said of her other brothers who were also involved in the business to much lesser degrees.
"You didn't say why you were here," she said, visibly relaxing enough to sip her champagne. "Are you a friend of Ward's?"
"Nope. But I know who he is, everyone does by now. When I saw you I hoped you might be able to tell me why I would be invited. The invitation said something about my attendance being an advantage—to me."
She gave a short laugh and tossed her long, dark hair away from her shoulders. Poppy's skin was olive and smooth, her eyes almond-shaped and almost black. Sykes couldn't see her without thinking she looked Mediterranean. By the time this long-legged woman turned fifteen, she had flowered into the pattern of what she would become.
"That sounds like an invitation Ward would approve of," she said. "Confidence is his watchword."
How well did she know him, Sykes wondered. "He must be an old friend of yours."
"Fairly recent, actually."
And yet she felt she knew the way he thought?
Disappearing at the sight of Poppy had not been a mature thing to do, but he had needed time to collect himself and think. And to watch her. That had been a pleasure for longer than it probably should have been.
"I gather Ward Bienville is thinking about a run for the Senate."
Poppy swirled the champagne in her glass and looked up at him. "That's what he says. And that's what all this is, I'm sure." She waved toward the crush inside the condo. "He's starting to test the waters seriously. Finding out his chances of getting the kind of backing he'll need if he goes forward."
"The Bienvilles are an old Louisiana family. They're supposed to be filthy rich in their own right. Haven't they had statesmen before?"
She raised one bare shoulder. Her black dress was demure enough, a sheath that ended at her knees, but it was strapless and Poppy had full breasts that rose softly above the top and showed the shadow of deep cleavage.
"You could be right," she said at last, "about the statesmen bit. But Ward hasn't lived the high life."
Sykes cocked a brow. "You could have fooled me."
She smiled and pushed her hair behind her shoulders again. "I didn't put that well. From what he's said, his branch of the family has been more involved with good works. His parents were missionaries and he's lived all over the world in various trouble spots. He doesn't like to say much but I think his work has been mostly under cover to assist with advance intelligence for aid groups."
"Sounds impressive," Sykes said. "He must be quite a man."
He studied her expression closely.
"I'm sure he is," she said, noncommittal. Sykes didn't hear a lot of admiration in her voice.
He shouldn't be relieved. "So I'm here as a potential donor? And you, too?"
"I guess. What are you working on these days?"
Sykes frowned. He hadn't expected the question. "An interesting piece. We'll see if it's still interesting when it's finished." An urge to see her again didn't surprise him. They had unfinished business. "Ben and Willow sound happy. I'm glad they decided to stay in Kauai for a while. At least they can hope for peace there."
She had stiffened. "The Embran have been quiet here," she said almost under her breath.
Sykes gave a single nod. "Ben talked to you about that?"
"Not a lot. But I've seen Marley, and we've discussed what's been going on."
Marley had not mentioned Poppy to Sykes. He might feel like asking her why if he did not figure she had sensed tension between him and Poppy.