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Movement in the shadows caught her attention.
Aurai Chattox strained to see what lurked in the dark. It wasn't something or someone hiding, but wispy shapes growing and creeping steadily closer to the circle of girls gathered around the candles. Had someone lit a smoke bomb? Were there girls or guys hiding among the rosebushes producing the special effects for this weird show?
When she sniffed, all she smelled was the scent of pine and roses and something she couldn't quite define. A pungent, decayed smell, almost imperceptible, buried beneath that of the more powerful aromas of the roses and natural vegetation.
As the dark, shadowy tendrils drifted closer, goose bumps rose on Aurai's skin. She fingered the pentagram at her neck and closed her eyes, drawing on the forces within, the strength of her sisters, the knowledge of the light and her own inner connection with the air, the wind and atmospheric conditions.
She'd made a promise to herself not to use her craft. She wanted to stand on her own as a mortal, not a witch. But something stirred deep insidecall it premonition, call it a portent of evil. If she gave it a nudge, perhaps it would go away.
Aurai lifted her hands by her sides, just enough to stir the air around her. Just a little, not enough to scare the other sorority initiates standing in the circle, their eyes wide, bodies trembling. But maybe enough to dispel the shadowy mist creeping in around them.
A light breeze blew in from the west.
When the West wind blows o 'er thee, departed spirits restless be.
A tremor shook Aurai from neck to knees as the breeze kicked up, lifting the tendrils of her hair around her face. Softly, at first, tickling her skin with the strands like the gentle touch of a lover's hand. The stroke was deceptively soothing, and Aurai opened her eyes. Her hood slipped backward, exposing her head to the night air.
Wind was her friend, her lover, her power, the one force within that always gave her comfort and foretold of change to come. Until now.
The gentle breeze intensified, mixing with the inky shadows to lift her hair away from her scalp, slapping it against her face. White-blond locks acted as whips stinging her open eyes.
She squinted against the onslaught and raised her hands to block the battering strands.
Tall pines, which a moment before had stood stately and stoic at the four corners of the garden, swayed like erotic lovers in the throes of passion, twisting and undulating like naked bodies.
Something was terribly wrong.
Her gift of wind should have been a gentle influence to cleanse the air of the encroaching black shadows around the circle of pledges. Instead, it became a force unto itself, gaining in power and magnitude until the girls fought to remain standing.
Her roommate, Rachel, dropped to her knees, blocking her face against flying debris. "What's happening?"
"I don't know," Aurai called out. Branches broke from the trees and pummeled the small gathering of females, drawing blood, scraping and bruising delicate skin.
Thorny rose stems tore at her legs and battered her face and neck. Aurai closed her eyes again, feeling for the ornate pentagram at her neck. The solid piece of silver given to her by her mother. Each of her sisters had a matching pendant, blessed with a protection spell. She called on the spell now.
Unwanted spirits I call thee
I call thee into the light
Guardian spirits I call thee
I call thee to the fight
The spell had no effect on the wind raging around her. The black, inky shadows swept in, twisting her cape around her body until she couldn't move.
"Aurai!" Rachel reached out to her. "Aurai!"
Aurai tried to lift her hand to capture Rachel's, but both arms were trapped at her sides, her cape plastered to her limbs and body like a mummy's death shroud.
Her feet left the ground and her body twirled through the air, faster and faster, caught in a funnel of leaves, rose petals, thorny branches and black, shadowy fingers.
For a moment, Aurai thought she saw the face of a man in the swirling, black wind. The face transformed into a hideous creature with two heads, one with the teeth of a raging lion. Both heads had the soulless, black gaping eyes of a demon.
As the force lifted her above the girls' heads, she gripped her pentagram and cried out, "Sisters, come to me!"
The world spun in a vacuum, lifting her higher still. Then the bottom dropped out of the dark cloud, the earth opened and the wind sucked her down, into a black abyss deep below the surface of the mossy garden soil.
Sisters, come to me!
Deme Chattox's hands shook as she held the paper cup of green tea, letting the warmth permeate her skin. She'd been chilled since arriving in Chicago. Having left her cushy private investigative business in the balmy breezes of St. Croix and flying overnight to get here, she hadn't had a chance to acclimate. Hell, she hadn't had a chance to breathe.
A nit in the scheme of things, considering her baby sister was missing. Deme could stand to be a little cold. She could only guess at the horrors Aurai faced. For her sister to reach out in the middle of the night and across great distances with enough force to knock Deme out of her bed, she had to be in serious trouble.
She downed the last of the tea and crushed the cup between her fingers. Deme and her sisters would find her if it was the last thing they did. She just hoped they found her before anything really bad happened to the youngest sister of the five of them. For now, her heart told her that her little sister was still alive.
Now where the hell was that detective?
She glanced around the student commons, searching every face for the one that looked most like an undercover cop. Her sister Brigid had given the detective a description of Deme, but she didn't have a name or description of him, and he was already ten minutes late.
The girls at the table next to her leaned close, their expressions nervous. "Did they find her yet?" one asked.
Deme blocked out the extraneous noises of the large cafeteria-style room in order to hear every word spoken by the college girls. That's why she'd come to this campus as a nontraditional student. Not because she wanted to improve her lot in life through a college degree. She already had a BS, an MS and a private investigator license. She'd enrolled as one of the students only to get inside and learn the truth about her sister's disappearance.
"No, they haven't found her," a blonde responded, her blue gaze darting around the nearby tables, briefly pausing on Deme.
Deme's attention remained on the entrance as she used her peripheral vision to study the girls beside her.
The blonde's glance moved on. "I bet the Gamma Omegas know what happened to her. Hell, they probably kidnapped her as part of the hazing."
A brunette snorted. "I don't think any of them are smart enough to get away with it."
The group of six giggled, their fingers pressed to their lips, their glances taking in the room.
The blonde sipped from her soda before asking, "Did the police interview you yesterday?"
"No," the brunette answered. "What about you?"
"No. They seem to be concentrating on the staff and the sorority. I hear the G.O.s were performing their initiation ceremony in the garden when the girl disappeared. I mean, like really, how can you lose a fully grown college student in a garden? That's just random, if you ask me."
Deme wondered the same, and then her attention was distracted by a gray-haired man stepping through the glass entrance doors. He could be a college professor or maybe an undercover detective.
With the patience of a Yorkshire terrier dying to be unleashed, Deme tapped her plastic spoon on the laminate tabletop. The man stopped at the coffee urn, filled a cup, paid and weaved his way through the tables. He didn't stop until he came to a table in the far corner by the floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a garden. He never once looked her way.
Damn. Either he wasn't her detective or he was playing hard to get. A man like that would fit right in. No one would ever suspect a guy who looked the image of a college professor of being an undercover cop.
For several long moments, Deme stared at the man by the window. She cleared her mind and focused on him, trying to read into his thoughts. Her sister Selene was much better at reading minds than she was. It wasn't Deme's talent. Give her dirt and plants, and she could whip up a tempting spell with her knack for all things relating to the goddess of earth. Reading minds? Nah. Not her bailiwick. Still, who was he and what was he doing here? Did he have anything to do with her sister?
The man stopped sipping his coffee, a frown pressing his silvery-gray brows together. Was he feeling her probe?
Excited that maybe for once her mind probing might work, Deme concentrated harder. Who are you? Did you take my sister? Who are you?
A thin, bookish, young man carrying a tray with coffee and a Danish passed by, stopped and spoke to the professor. At first it all looked like any student stopping to say a word to his instructor. Until the gray-haired man lurched to his feet and shoved the younger man's tray into his chest, toppling the coffee cup. The boy yelled and dropped the tray, pulling his sweater away from his chest, cursing as scalding liquid burned his skin.
The older man hurried from the room, pushing people out of his way as he went.
Deme half stood, torn between helping the guy with the soaked sweater and chasing after the man who'd blown a gasket. A student commons worker beat her to the younger man with a handful of napkins. Meanwhile, the gray-haired gentleman had already left.
She sank into her chair and stared through the glass doors at the back of the retreating professor. What the hell was that all about?
The young man walked by her table talking to the employee, his brow wrinkled in a frown. "I don't know what set him off. All I said was 'How's it going?' Then he yelled, 'No, I didn't, and none of your effing business' and slammed my tray into me." He lifted his sweater away from his skin and flapped it. "That coffee was hot."
"Wonder what came over Professor Dane. He's never blown up like that before."
"It's like he was possessed or something. Did you see his face? Even his eyes didn't look right."
They moved out of range and Deme sat back in her seat. Was the gray-haired Professor Dane feeling the pressure of a missing student? Was he responsible for Aurai's disappearance? Had Deme's probing pushed him over the edge?
She'd never been successful at probing before, so why should it work now? And why in such a way as to cause a violent reaction?
Her chest tightened. Not known for her patience, Deme could feel the blood boiling inside her. She wanted to follow the professor and shake the truth out of him. If Brigid hadn't insisted on this detective, who came highly recommended by the Chicago police as the best undercover operative on the force, Deme wouldn't have waited ten minutes past their scheduled time for him. She could have conducted her own search and interviews. She had shoved her chair back and leaned forward to stand when the glass doors opened again.
Deme sat back in her chair, her mouth falling open.
He strode in as if he owned the place. Every female gaze riveted on his incredibly broad shoulders encased in a black leather jacket. Black jeans caressed his thick, muscled thighs and tight ass, moving with him like a second skin.
His black hair hung to his shoulders in loose waves, and he carried a helmet in one hand. Pausing for a moment, he removed sunglasses and stared around the room.
Deme held her breath. When rich, brown eyes collided with hers, her heart skipped several beats then made up for the loss by hammering a staccato against her ribs. She'd never reacted to a man so instantly or with such impact. For a moment she couldn't breathe, and then every nerve ending lit up like the Fourth of July.
No way this biker bad boy could play an undercover role at a school. The Chicago police might as well have hung a red flag on him, announcing him as the superhero who would magically reveal the location of their missing sister by waving his incredible magnetism around a room full of women.
He set out across the floor headed straight for her.
A familiar heat flashed over her, filling her chest and crawling up her neck into her cheeks. Worse still, the heat raged south into her belly and lower, sending searing liquid flames into places that hadn't been lit in a long time. Not since the last time she'd seen him.
Damn! Why him? Why now?
As his boots ate the distance, a slight smile tipped the corner of his lips, as though he knew the secret and he was going to enjoy every bit of it.
When he stopped in front of her chair, he held out a hand.
Deme stared at it a moment, her mind refusing to engage, her voice completely choked in her throat. She'd never been this off balance in the presence of a man, no matter how good-looking, except this one. The intensity consumed her. Without even thinking it through, she dropped the mutilated cup on the table and laid her hand in his.
Instead of shaking it, he yanked her to her feet and into his arms.
As her chest crashed into his, shock and the whoosh of air escaping her lungs kept her from crying out. Her lips parted in a gasp just in time for his to descend and claim them.
One hand cupped her ass and pulled her pelvis against the natural bulge behind his zipper. The other circled her neck and threaded through her long, auburn hair.
Firm, sensuous lips plundered her startled ones, his tongue delving deep, pushing past her teeth to taste her and drink his fill.
Where their bodies touched, her skin was on fire. Deme squirmed, constrained by the clothing she wore, longing for her naked skin to melt into his.
Long, loud sighs from the young girls at the table beside her brought Deme out of the trance the man's sheer allure had thrown her into. She pulled back, fighting to mask the shock in her eyes. How could she have fallen into his armshis kisswithout so much as a mew of protest? What had come over her? She never acted so mindlessly. She'd fallen for this macho bullshit before, and what had it bought her?
Heartburn and heartache.