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The man was running for all he was worthflat out, effortlessly, over snow-dusted ground. He was, Jesse Stewart decided, idiotically underdressed.
His riding breeches, or whatever they were, were beige and formfitting. He wore black boots to his knees. A white shirt, long-sleeved, composed of some kind of soft fabric, billowed as he moved, stretching out on either side of a wide-shouldered torso, no doubt rippling with effort.
Jesse adjusted the binoculars.
From a distance, the man was a speck of movement in a green landscape filled with old shapesmountains, forests, vast stretches of meadow sprinkled white for the winter. Tall trees formed stark canopies to the north and east, lush against a gray sky streaked with the pink of an approaching European sunrise.
Jesse manipulated the lenses to get up close and personal.
The guy's hair was a shoulder-length, silky curtain of gold, at least six or seven inches longer than her own hair. Automatically, Jesse's free hand went to her somewhat dark, damp and matted locks. She couldn't remember the last time she'd brushed; maybe the day before. Primping wasn't her forte.
Once upon a time, she'd worn her hair long, as most young girls did. But long hair was trouble, and high on upkeep. Long hair gave the bad guys something to hang on to in a fightalthough her fighting days had been over for some time now. For the most part.
Lowering the binoculars, adjusting her headset, Jesse frowned. The running man moved as gracefully as an animal. He was a thing of beauty, a bit of tension both at odds with and somehow wholly a part of his surroundings.
Did he chase the clouds? Outdistance a storm? Did he run for the sake of running? For the sheer exhilaration? Had he lost his horse?
Who was he?
Why did he run?
Trained to take in details, Jesse couldn't seem to break the habit, even on a routine helicopter flight. She held tightly to her binoculars, knowing on some internal level that though this guy presented a pretty picture, something about the scene down there seemed off.
Give or take the possibility of the man losing his equine pal, it had to be thirty degrees outside. The guy wasn't wearing a coat. In thirty-degree weather, the great breaths he had to be taking would be painfully icy. He'd be a freaking ice cube by now. Yet he ran with a certain joyousness that Jesse thought she could perceive. Her own legs were antsy from being cooped up. She could have used a jog.
Another interesting point, she noted, was that the guy on the ground didn't seem to be following any visible track, path or road. They were a hundred miles from the nearest city of merit, and a distance from the closest village. The only thing near this place, so the map beside her suggested, was an old castle, long since fallen to ruin. Nothing else. No dot of civilization bigger than a pinprick.
"Hey, Stewart. What are you staring at?" The air in the chopper stirred with the question. Jesse's concentration shattered. "Earth to Jesse."
Jesse turned her head. "Stan, can you note this place? Exactly?"
"This isn't anywhere near where we're heading," her pilot said. "It's just an isolated spot in the middle of nowhere."
Then why would he be in it? Jesse continued to wonder. Where would the guy down there be headed? It seemed the old adage was always truethat the devil was in the details.
"There's a castle here." She again hoisted the binoculars, hating the way her pulse thudded as though she were the one in that landscape moving faster than anyone had the right to move. She could hear her heartbeat drumming in her ears beyond the whop-whop of the chopper's blades. Fast and irregular.
Interesting. Vicarious running, maybe? The desire to be out of this flying tin can and stretching her cramped muscles? Even on a private jet the long trip from Los Angeles to Europe always took its toll. The chopper was icing on being stuffed into a tiny space.
"Castle?" Stan snorted. "I wouldn't call it that. More like a pile of rubble right out of a scene from Frankenstein. "
"You've seen it?"
"Only from up here. We're talking isolated and none too inviting. Picturesque though, if you're a horror freak."
Stan might have said something else; Jesse didn't listen. Through the lenses she watched the man on the ground slow, and knew the chopper would soon pass him by.
She didn't take her eyes off him when she turned her head and the binoculars bumped against the window with an intensity she figured might cause a black eye. The guy had stopped right in the center of a snow-covered field, his upright body looking like an exclamation point. An eerie chill slid up the back of Jesse's neck. More chills followed, and a need to speak.
"Take her down, Stan. Please."
"We're going to be late as it is," Stan protested. "We have an assignment, remember? They're waiting. It's almost full daylight."
"Take her down. Just for a minute. Circle if you have to."
Heavy sigh from Stan. "Okay. You're the boss."
Yes, she was the boss. The assignment was waiting. Heads of state, no less, requesting her personally for this one. She'd actually been recommended by the FBI.
"Hang on," Stan said teasingly, as if a chopper harness would allow for anything more than the slightest movement in any direction.
Jesse pressed her forehead to the Plexiglas, curious about her reaction to the scene below. She'd always trusted her instincts. She'd built her business around those instincts. You couldn't find missing people for a living and be on top of that game if you lacked fine-tuned abilities.
Right now, she could feel Stan eyeing her warily. Rumors resurfacing, she guessed. Rumors that had rippled through the old precinct labeling her "psychic." What a crock. Anyone with half a brain knew there was no such thing as powers derived from the cosmos. Intuition, yes. Hard work and good resources, yes. Cosmic connections? Hell, no.
"Down we go," Stan announced, circling the chopper in a wide arc, coming up on the target from behind.
The target remained still while the wind assailed him from all angles. Jesse's heart gave a lurch, having nothing whatsoever to do with the copter's movements. An odd few seconds of dizziness came and passed. The golden hair, the breeches, the way he stood there, seemed so strange. Almost
A punch of anxiety made her hands shake and her heart rate spike. Suddenly, Jesse wasn't sure about harassing the man. She wondered what he might think. A chopper coming from nowhere and then almost chasing you down when you're minding your own business had to be some sort of rude awakening, especially out here in the middle of nowhere.
She repositioned the binoculars, feeling a bit like a voyeur. With the subject in full view, she sucked in a breath, rolled her tense shoulders and fended off another jolt of anxiousness that read like honest-to-God discomfort. She wanted to shout for Stan to lift the bird, though for the life of her she didn't know why. She even opened her mouth to issue the order. But then, in that same moment, the man below looked up.
The chopper shot past, flying low like a pestering bee.
Jesse had to turn her head again to see the guy brush back his hair. She got a brief glimpse of a pale, chiseled face, expressionless, for all the predictable irritation of the grass and twigs the chopper was kicking up.
"Back," she barked to Stan, chills now covering both arms beneath her jacket, her tongue feeling heavy in her mouth.
Another look was what she needed. Not because the guy down there, when viewed full on and in the quickest glance, had been shockingly handsome, almost godlike in a European-nobility kind of way, but because his chest, seen through the unbuttoned shirt open to his navel, wasn't heaving from the effort of all that distance, and the speed with which he'd traveled it.
He had to have run a couple of miles at least since she'd first sighted him.
More than that. She had to double back because of the way he stood there, motionless. Because of the way her blood ran hot beneath her chilled skin over the entire ordeal. The guy didn't flap his arms to keep out the cold. He hadn't raised a middle finger in any kind of universal sign language that would tell them to buzz off. He hadn't flung any expletives their way that she could see. He just stood there, waiting.
She could hardly breathe.
Stan banked in the air and returned for a second pass. Jesse's stomach dropped along with the descent.
There he was. Unmoving. Still as a statue, and looking, in his open-legged stance and white shirt, like a candidate for Adonis status. The closest thing she'd seen to something like him had been years ago in Paris, at the Louvre, carved in marble.
Hey, bud, Jesse wanted to say. Looks aren't everything.
Looks could, as a matter of fact, be deceiving. Usually were.
More shivers rocked her, the closer they got. Bone-deep shivers. The man was actually brutally handsome. Yes, that was the right description. Brutal. So inhumanly gorgeous, he hurt the eyes.
A second round of dizziness hit her, making it difficult to focus her eyes, let alone the powerful lens. The rolling sensation in her gut turned queasy.
Did she want to remain here?
Did she want to get closer?
The shakes were always precursors, forewarnings, of her internal alarm system kicking in. This one cried out Red Alert! But it was too late. They were floating now, hovering some twenty feet above him. Jesse didn't reach for the speaker controls. She maintained a stranglehold on the binoculars in her lap.
"You do know how rude this is?" Stan's voice was loud in her earphones.
Sure she knew it. She wasn't an imbecile, and hadn't gotten to lead this particular crime-busting unit due to charm alone. Or looks. The perception of her actions just didn't matter at the moment. Guilt didn't enter the picture. Only one question remained to be answered. Who was this guy?
He looked up.
Jesse looked down.
Her eyes met his through a full quarter inch of windshield.
Time seemed to stop. Breathing stopped.
The chills on the surface of her skin solidified. The noise of the chopper's blades faded into a distant thrumming sound as Jesse's heart sputtered, suspended, as if she was about to free-fall. As if she had somehow slipped into those incredible blue eyes boring into hers and
As if she knew them, somehow. As if she knew him.
Captured. She was captured, the victim of a gaze so intensely piercing, so all-consuming, that Jesse couldn't pull herself away or utter so much as a single syllable of protest. Though the chopper was holding her up, the man's blue eyes dragged her down. She felt so very cold all of a sudden, and needy. She felt as if those eyes of his were touching her all over, with open access to her most private places.
Vertigo hit as she squeezed her thighs together, accompanied by a stupid desire to go down there and view those incredible eyes up close. Ask him what the heck he was doing, and why she felt as though she might have known him in the past, somewhere. Find out why his gaze was.intimate.
Moisture gathered on her brow in direct contrast to the chills. Jesse watched, mesmerized, horrified, as the man's lips upturned at the corners in an arrogant half smile. She watched his beautiful mouth form a silent word.
A knee-jerk reaction lifted her butt off the seat, harness and all. The chills became waves, hitting, moving, hittingsensory bombardment of the cruelest kind. Every one of her nerve endings tingled. Every cell screamed.
There didn't seem to be enough air.
But he couldn't have said her name. He could not have known it. She'd allowed her imagination to run away with her reasoning skills. She was jet-lagged, that's all. She hadn't slept more than two hours at a stretch in the last week. This slipup was a rare one. She was nothing if not diligent. Notoriously diligent. Anything less and she'd have been dead long ago.
Fact. The distance between them did not close. That was a physical impossibility. Yet damned if it didn't seem to close. Damned if that guy down there wasn't a creature of nearly heartrending beauty. And damn it to hell if he wasn't also some kind of discernible omen.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jesse noticed Stan lifting a hand in greeting, or perhaps in apology. The movement, so close beside her, snapped her back. She caught Stan with tight fingers on his sleeve. After a shake of her head, she looked back at the man on the ground and inhaled a breath of stale air to get herself together.
"Got the hots for guys in period costume, boss?" Stan asked, obviously amused by her behavior. "Think how far info like that might go in the unit."
Stan, slightly rotund and visibly rough around the edges, had always been good for a laugh. But not this time. Jesse was tremblingarms, legs and everything in between. Her heart couldn't have pounded any harder. Her face was numb. Beneath her frozen skin, her blood boiled in her veins. Her thighs quivered with an unmistakable desire to be down there, next to a man she couldn't possibly know. She'd just experienced heart-stopping desire for a stranger! A damn marble statuelike man whose arrogant upturned lips had given her the weird sensation of having formed her name.
"Out of here now, boss?" Stan asked. "If it's a guy you want, I'll volunteer. I'm pretty sure there are boots somewhere in my closet."
Stan was speaking. She needed to listen. But the man down there just wouldn't let up.
The man was.
Jesse sat back, absorbing what now felt curiously like a wave of panic that brought on another stomach drop. A word struggled to the forefront of her mind that might finish her dangling sentence. That word was blinking brighter than a traffic signal. Etched in a laser beam. It was a word to explain the inexplicable. A reason for the sudden, unwarranted desire, and also for dispelling any urge to see him up close.
It was the reason for not finding out firsthand what kind of long pointed teeth no doubt lay hidden behind those arrogant lips.
Feelings of rightness poured over Jesse, rerouting the cold. She knew the answer to her question suddenly in a burst of insight. One word explained all the rest.
Her whole body cried out. Terror, hatred and disgust bubbled up from her throat with a taste of oxidized iron.
"What is it?" Stan asked, eyeing her with a swinging sideways glance.
"Vampire," Jesse whispered, her mouth exceptionally dry.
Lance Van Baaren stood his ground, staring up at the disappearing helicopter as if his race against the rising sun didn't matter.