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"Don't move. I've come for youand only you."
With the whispered threat came the clamp of a man's gloved hand on the back of Claire Lecuyer's neck. She commanded herself not to flinch or alter her features, which she'd schooled into relaxed amusement. She'd entered this crowded ballroom of her own free will and she meant to leave that way, even if she had to take a madman with her.
She started to turn, but he tightened his grasp.
"You don't take orders very well," he chastised.
He didn't know the half of it.
Despite the rush of adrenaline pumping through her veins, Claire willed her voice to remain light and lilting, in keeping with the character she'd created. Tonight she wasn't just a former cop turned private investigator searching for a missing personshe was, in this undercover incarnation, a sweet Southern belle looking for her lover among the throng.
"But the night has just begun," she said. "Who knows who is going to end up with whom?"
Two hundred years had passed since the first quadroon ball, but two weeks ago, Claire had learned that >the traditions of old New Orleans had been reintroduced to modern Louisiana by sexual fetishists who called themselves Nouvelle Placage. In a leased plantation over an hour away from the French Quarter, the group recreated the grand ballrooms and strict rules of a system that had once been the means by which rich white landowners arranged for longterm affairs with women of the gens de couleur libre, a lightskinned French Creole class native to preAmericanized New Orleans.
But the people here tonight weren't reenactors like the ones who showed up at Chalmette National Park every January to recreate the Battle of New Orleans. These modern men paid outrageous entry fees for women who would fulfill their every fantasy. They came from across the country to enjoy a weekend of anonymous sexual encounters dressed up with proper manners, oldworld moral codes and romanticized dominance and submission.
In the past, the young ladies demanded homes, generous allowances, finest clothes and educations for their bastard children from the men they took as lovers. In this modern revival, the compensation was a hell of a lot more complicated. And the affairs only lasted for a weekendwhich meant Claire had that long to complete her case and find Josslyn Granger.
Technically, Josslyn wasn't missing, though for four years, her whereabouts had been unknown. According to her former husband, she'd announced her defection from suburban soccer mom to sexual deviant, filed for divorce and disappeared. But though she'd granted her perplexed husband papers to dissolve their marriage, she'd conveniently forgotten to give up parental rights for their two children.
Since then, Robert Granger had hired a dozen private
investigators to search for his wayward exwife as she followed various sex partners and sex clubs around the country, but none had succeeded in pinning her down. When the husband heard she'd be in New Orleans for the Nouvelle Placage event, he'd hired Claire. Now that Granger had remarried, his job required frequent overseas travel, and his new wife, for both legal and emotional reasons, needed to adopt Josslyn's kids. But for that to happen, Claire had to find Josslyn and convince her to sign the papers she'd hidden nearby.
The case was a welcome diversion from her usual background checks and cheating spouse investigations. She liked to succeed where others had failed. She adored undercover work and relished a chance to test her own limits.
What she didn't like was being manhandled by some guy who may or may not be the stalker the FBI had warned her about. A stalker who was after Claire.
"You will end up with me," he said, his voice a low, but confident promise.
She forced a girlish giggle. If he was the stalker, maybe a different persona would throw him off. He hadn't come here expecting to find a pliant, vapid ingenue on the prowl for a man. He'd expected Claire Lecuyerwho was, in all ways, the complete opposite.
"Is that so?" she asked, her tone seemingly unconcerned. "But you have not yet negotiated my willingness to end up with you. Have you not been schooled in the ways of Nouvelle Placage?"
Around them, men in impeccable top coats and breeches circled the room, calculating and assessing their morethanwilling prey. From behind painted fans, women in decadent, empirewaist gowns flirted and fawned, hot with anticipation for a lover who'd soon devour them with unbridled desire and deep, deep pockets.
If not for the strains of a lively quadrille and the overpowering scent of candle wax, a stranger might mistake the scene for a modernday masquerade. But this place was more than costumes and charactersthis was the gilded antechamber into a dark and scintillating world. Claire had busted her ass to get in to this guarded community and she sure as hell wasn't going to let some mystery man derail her, no matter who he was. Maybe he was just an attendee who'd missed orientation. Or maybe he was the stalker.
Didn't matter. She wasn't dealing with her own problems until she completed her case.
"Perhaps I should call Monsieur Masterson to remind you of how things are done here?" she suggested, invoking the obviously fake name of the man who seemed to be in charge. Unfortunately, he was nowhere in sight.
"I know all the rules, Ms. Lecuyer," the mystery man assured her. "But like you, I believe that some rules are made to be broken."
She pretended to laugh, hoping to shake off her fear. "Your overconfidence does you no credit, sir. But if you are so intent on having me, perhaps you should begin by telling me who you"
He cut off her inquiry by tightening his grip.
"You thought you'd be safe here, didn't you?" While one hand held her immobile, the other trailed up the back of her gown, brushing the beribboned stays with exquisite slowness, as if he savored a chance to untie each and every one. "You thought you could protect yourself."
Unexpectedly, his breath was tinged with the sweet scent of mint and creamy cafe au lait.
"You haven't yet proven otherwise, sir," she whispered.
Swallowing her fear, she'd pushed out the reply with a bold confidence that was only halfsincere. She didn't know very much about the man who was after her. The local FBI agents had only told her to go someplace safe and wait for contact by the lead agent who was on his way from California. Since she only had the weekend to find Josslyn Granger among the attendees of Nouvelle Placage, she'd figured it was as safe a place as any.
She'd had to call in quite a few favors from her days at Vice to even get in here. She'd had to pay the dues, buy the clothes, endure the orientation, all in her bid to find a woman she knew was here somewhere, but who'd yet to show. She hadn't imagined some wackedout sicko who'd last been spotted in California would go to so much trouble to follow her.
But maybe she was wrong.
She moved her head just enough to catch a glimpse of her captor. His startling blue eyes widened, then narrowed before he tugged her back into place.
"You don't follow directions very well," he chastised.
She snorted. He wasn't the first man to utter those words to her. And he probably wouldn't be the last.
"It's one of my unique charms, I assure you."
His chuckle was low, but genuine, and soothed her anxiety rather than increased it.
"Who are you?" she asked.
"A man who caught you."
He smoothed his gloved fingers around her throat and pressed gently against her carotid artery.
Her breath hitched. Damn, damn, damn.
Why hadn't she listened more carefully to the local feds? The details she retained were sketchy. A special task force had put her name on a short list of likely victims for some creep who kidnapped women. He used the daterape drug Rohypnol and incapacitated them long enough to act out some freakish seduction where he wore a mask and cape. Buried under by preparations for her own case, Claire had hardly given their warnings a second thought.
But then a black silk scarf embroidered with a scarlet letter Z had been delivered to her doorstep. She'd immediately taken it to the FBI, but refused their offer of protection and instead went ahead with her timesensitive plans.
Which might, she admitted to herself now, have been a mistake.
One by one, she felt his fingers dig deeper into the skin along her throat. "One squeeze right here and you'd fall into a dead faint. A rather fashionable thing to do for young ladies of the early nineteenth century, wasn't it? No one would blink if I carried you out for a moonlight tryst."
His hand constricted, but not enough to spawn even the slightest dizziness. He was taunting her, perhaps even attempting to scare her.
And he was succeeding.
But she wasn't going down easily. She shifted her elbows into striking range when he tightened his hold again.
"Don't move," he warned.
She bit back a curse. She'd nearly dropped her cover. The women of Nouvelle Placage came here specifically to be manhandled. If she reacted too much like a modernday excop and not enough like a woman on the prowl, she'd have to deal with more scrutiny, more questions more possibilities for getting tossed out on her ass.
"Let me go." She delivered the command with a honeysweet Southern lilt, but though his grip slackened, he did not release her.
"Luckily for you, I'm not here to hurt you."
Something in his tone sliced through her suspicions, along with the fact that he loosened his hold. Maybe he wasn't the man who'd sent her the scarf. Maybe he wasn't related to the FBI case at all. Her instincts kept returning to that possibility, and though her gut had often gotten her into trouble, it had never proved wrong.
Painting on a simpering smile, she turned to face him, chin up and eyes flashing.
She didn't know him, but she'd seen him. When she'd first been paraded in the ballroom along with the other women intent on selling their services for the weekend, she'd become instantly aware of his presence.
Amid the assessing stares of the many men in attendance, his intense, sapphire blue eyes had stood out, causing a prickle of excitement to shoot through her system like liquid lightning. She'd immediately recognized the reaction. Lust. He was handsome, with a square chin and strong upper torso built more for helmets and shoulder pads than snug breeches and a fluffed cravat.
But just as quickly as she'd felt the flicker of desire, she'd dismissed it. This weekend might be all about sex for everyone else here, but she had a job to do.
Which, now that she saw her captor close up, was a crying shame.
"Of course you won't hurt me," she said, fluttering her eyelashes. "Unless I want you to, non?"
The corner of his mouth lifted slightly. He wanted to smile, but fought the urge. Well, that wasn't the only urge he'd have to fight tonight. He might have set his sights on her, but she had no intention of taking a loverno matter how hypnotic his blue eyes were.
"We should negotiate our expectations in a quieter place, don't you think?" he asked.
She softened her voice to a coy purr. "I don't even know your name."
"Not yet, ma cher," he replied, his raspy voice scraping over her. "But I expect that, soon, you'll know much more about me than that."
Claire took a step back, dislodging his hand only for a second before he regained his touch.
"You may release me now, sir," she said.
"That would not be wise." The corner of his mouth quirked into a bold grin that liquefied her insides and gave a little tweak of desire to the tips of her tightly corseted breasts.
This was ridiculous. Why was he being so singleminded? And why was she so intrigued?
"Really? And why ever not?"
He leaned in close. His lips brushed against her curls when he spoke, but the voice that had been so accented and charming before now sliced across her skin with icy precision.
"Because you're in danger, Ms. Lecuyer, and I'm here to protect you."
Special Agent Michael Murrieta gave his captive a minute to let his words sink in. Once her eyes narrowed in suspicion and she visibly shed the cloying persona she'd adopted for the night, he released his hold. From the first word he'd read in her file, he'd figured she was going to be a pain in the ass, but he'd had no idea he'd have to cross the continental United States, don a crazy costume and borrow ten thousand dollars from his brother in order to find her.
He turned their bodies so that no one could see, then with practiced swiftness, flashed his credentials.
Her eyes widened and she mouthed an unspoken curse.
"Not here," she pleaded.
She took a large step back again, but he quickly regained custody of her hand. "If not here, then where, cher?"
His accurate Creole accent again elicited a tilted eyebrow. He had to admit that she was very good at going undercoverbut he was better. He did not have her family's theater background, but Michael had years of experience with the Bureau and a partner originally from Louisiana who'd schooled him on the accent before he'd taken off to find Claire Lecuyer and save her from a rapist.
She had not made his job easy. Only hours after alerting the local office that she had received the telltale scarf, she'd dropped off the grid and disappeared into this sexual underworld. In order to bypass their intense security on short notice, he'd had to make quick arrangements for an authentic costumeoddly, not difficult to do in New Orleansand borrow the exorbitant entrance fee from his brother, Alejandro. He had authorization to retrieve Claire Lecuyer and put her under protective custody, but he doubted his superiors would have approved of him paying his way into a sex club.
The case hadn't yet become a major priority for the Bureau. They had serial killers to catch and homegrown terrorists to thwart. They'd only thrown the case his way because of an obscure tie between him and the rapist. But it was that same family secret that made him determined to catch this psycho before he hurt another woman. To that end, he'd finagled a consult from the Behavioral Analysis Unit at Quantico, received approval to call in Ruby, his partner, a member of his San Francisco team and was given open access to agents from the local office.
Otherwise, Michael was on his own.
It hadn't been easy to find Claire, but he'd pulled it off with limited resources and time. He had no reason to believe that her stalker, a man who'd already kidnapped and tormented five other women, wouldn't find her, too.
And when he did, Michael intended to catch him.
"So now that you have me," she said, turning up the mocking quality in her Southern belle enunciation, "whatever are you going to do with me?"