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Acharity show wasn't the strangest event Max had ever crashed. He'd been everywhere, seen everything. It took a lot to impress, disturb or even surprise him. A man who had lived over two centuries didn't miss much.
There were days he wished to miss more.
A twenty-story skyscraper jutted up from downtown Minneapolis, three blocks from the bustling City Center mall. The blue-windowed steel spire was nestled between a white stucco building and a multilevel parking ramp.
This was where he'd followed the limo that had picked up the familiar. He spied only a flash of green dress as she stepped out from the limo's backseat and took the hand of a beefy bouncer to be led inside.
Green. Max loved when women adorned themselves with green. It reminded him of wild French meadows and freedom. Few could wear the color as well as this woman.
And if she wore spike heels and had bright, sexy eyes, then he was a goner.
Rare was the woman who could truly leave Maximilien Fitzroy speechless.
This one wouldn't have a chance to render him silent. He wasn't here to socialize. He had found the familiar. Now he would convince her to do a job for him.
And then he'd kill her.
The majority of guests filing into the building wore tuxedoes and fancy dresses. Checking his black duster coat and cowboy boots, complete with spurs, Max gave a tug to his black denim jeans and pulled the coat over his hip to conceal the whip he never forgot.
The delivery door was set into the shadows. Striding down the alleyway, Max released hold on his mortal shape and shifted to shadow form. He could shadow for five minutes and still maintain complete control over the demon. Any longer than that and he was headed for a dream walk.
He glided inside the building, following delivery of a massive arrangement of red roses.
Once inside, he clung to shadows in the crevice where floor met wall, until he made the elevator. Inside and alone, he reneged control over the shadow.
Later, he'd have to appease the shadow by allowing it to peer into the dreams of unsuspecting mortals.
Hell, it wasn't all for the demon. Shadowing sublimated Max's basic needs by allowing him to experience them vicariously. It was all he had. He rarely missed a night of dream walking.
At the twentieth floor, the elevator dinged. Max stepped out before two goateed bouncers dressed in tuxedoes and brandishing discerning stares. He wasn't questioned; he'd obviously made it in at ground level.
Never comfortable in crowds, he eased himself into the mixture of bodies, both mortal and, he suspected, paranormal. His attire was lacking, but now he noticed some artsy sorts who wore a range from wildly colored hair to Day-Glo glasses, Earth shoes and military camouflage pants.
More than a few feminine necks and wrists sported sparkling jewels.
I do love the shiny stuff.
The placard on an artist's easel announced the Charity Auction for the Northern Wolf Sanctuary featuring local celebrities, The Fallen and Johnny Lang.
Max strode through a long hall clattering with heightened conversation and clinking crystal goblets. Floor-to-ceiling windows lined the east wall, providing a brilliant view of the half moon. The west side was lined with mirrors, which gave the eerie effect of looking skyward at distorted multiple moons.
He wasn't interested in the art hung before the mirrors by braided silver cables. The pieces were apparently being auctioned off. But as he passed the paintings, he smirked and stepped closer to study a six-foot-tall piece.
"Cheesecake?" he muttered. The entire row boasted cheesecake paintings of scantily clad pinup girls.
"Better than Mondrian," he muttered, recalling an art event in the early twentieth century that had confused and bored him. But it had introduced him to absintheone of few pleasures he could yet imbibe.
Max strode through the tightly packed room where guests chattered and cooed at one another. There were many tall model sorts, and he matched a couple of emaciated posers to their nudie paintings as he passed through the clutch.
The women cast him lingering glances. One siliconed blonde in barely-there strips of black leather approached him. Diamonds glittered at her neck and ears. Her red lips smiled coyly, while her brown eyes touched him from boots to beltand there she stopped.
"See something you like?" Max asked.
He slid a hand along her cheek, touching her hair, lightly brushing her ear, then returned that hand to his pocket. "Sorry, not into blondes."
Her smile dropped to a pout and she brushed rudely past him.
Max could only shake his head. A dalliance with a gorgeous woman mostly proved frustrating. Much as he enjoyed indulging, he didn't have the patience for self-denial tonight. He was here on business.
Focusing, he headed for the ballroom ahead. The glass ceiling soared high and white marble walls and windows glittered. Chandeliers threatened to dribble a rain of crystal droplets, and the funky blue lighting cooled the complexions of all.
The chrome bar inside the ballroom drew him.
"You have absinthe?" Max asked. The liquor had only recently been legalized in the United States.
The bartender nodded. Max laid a twenty on the bar. That would buy him a sip of the overpriced Green Faery.
Scanning the room, his eyes fell upon a woman whose green dress spilled in loose curves to the top of her shapely derriere. Her entire back was exposed, revealing sexy, sinuous skin. From her hips, the green fabric greedily clung to long legs, which ended in black spike heels. Black ribbons, tied about her ankles, begged to be bitten and tugged from their bows.
The line of her body curved and sashayed as she prowled the center of the ballroom, her arms swaying, as if choreographed, to attract all eyes. Short tufted hair emphasized her slender neck.
"Red," Max whispered. Now, redheads he liked.
Not a single jewel or bauble detracted his eye from her soft skin and sleek body. Just as well.
Sucking in a breath, he whistled lowly. Spike heels and a sexy, body-clinging dress. And to top it off, she was a redhead. This wasn't going to be easy on his fickle libido, or his itchy fingers. Max never mixed business with pleasure.
Come to think of it, he would if he could, but pleasure was an elusive beast he sought to capture.
The air-conditioning was overkill. Aby shivered and rubbed a palm up her bare arm. She'd dressed to the nines tonight, green silk dress with a low-cut back. Stilettos held her ankles in bondage with crisscrossing black ribbon.
The artist whose prints they were auctioning off later, Wesley Aims, was a friend, and this was his first big showing in an art world that normally sneered at pinup paintings.
The charity auction should give him entrance to further showings. Or so he and Severo hoped.
She sought Severo to cozy up to and draw some of his natural male heat over her chilled skin. He'd been out of eyesight since the bigwig in the Armani suit had taken him aside to discuss Severo's investments. His passion was buying land and transforming it into a natural wolf preserve, so she couldn't fault his inattention. Any chance he found to buy land before the vampires could sink their teeth into it, he jumped.
In her peripheral vision, Aby sighted Ian Grim, a centuries-old witch whom she'd been working with exclusively. She tolerated him, but lately he'd been flirting with her before they got down to business. The man gave her stronger shivers than the air-conditioning, and they weren't the sexy kind of shivers.
A step outside into the sweltering July evening appealed to her, but the charity show was on the twentieth floor. And the band was supposed to take the stage soon.
She'd not listened to The Fallen previously, but the lead singer was attractive, anddespite Severo's reservations about hiring a longtootha vampire. They'd had some success years ago, but now only played local events.
Aby roamed her gaze across the room. If she didn't leave or at least go sit by the bar, someone would whisk her into another dance. She liked dancing, but the men's hands tended to roam her bare back with an ease that put her off. Hell, the illicit touches put up the tiny hairs at the base of her neck.
She liked to dress sexy, but she was always a little confused how to handle blatant flirtation.
A flash of blue at the bar wafted the bittersweet-orange scent of Curaçao across the room toward her ultrasensitive nose.
Her world was navigated by scent. She never made a move without first assessing the atmosphere. It usually took her but moments to acclimate to new smells, else she'd be dizzy from a melee of odors.
A new smell, beyond the alcohol-laced colognes and grooming products and cigarette smoke, tickled her nose.
Aby smiled at a passing couple, then tilted her head to eye the bar. Running her tongue along her lower lip, she took in the tall man who also scanned the room.
Though the ballroom was filled with eclectic clothing and hair, even the latest haute couture, the man, wearing a long, black duster coat, stood apart. Not here for the art or to save an abused captive wolf, she suspected. Possibly to hunt out a missing girlfriend? Or maybe he was a friend of one of the bartenders.
He smelled different. But what about him was unique?
Drawing a soft breath through her nose, Aby discerned the faint masculine odor wafting from his direction. That was it. One simple scent. He was clean. No tobacco, alcohol or chemicals that tainted every living being in the world. Not a definitive food odor that usually lingered even on the most fastidious.
"Odd," Aby murmured.
And yet, too intriguing for her curious nature to ignore.
She glided toward the bar, but remained parallel to the man. Gracious as she liked to be to Severo's friends, she didn't approach handsome strangers out of the blue. And this man definitely ranked high on the handsome scale.
Tall, he looked as if he could see over the heads of everyone in the ballroom. Narrow dark denim emphasized long legs. The cowboy boots were perhaps too scuffed for this elite crowd. And spurs?
Maybe he was some kind of Wild West entertainer hired for the evening? Severo did like westerns.
A tousle of brown hair dusted his ears and coat collar. Broad shoulders gave Aby a shudder as she wondered at his strength. Strong men always tempted her to look twice.
He was definitely not the glitzy charity-ball type. So what brought him here this evening? Was he alone or with a date?
Aby sucked in her lower lip. There was something about a man who absolutely filled the space he stood inyet went beyond, as if his aura could not be contained and crept out at the edges.
His eyes scanned the room, stopping first at the bar, and then finally, he looked right at Aby.
The room heated measurably, and yet beneath the thin green silk Aby's nipples tightened. His gaze wasn't accidental; rather, it was determined. Maybe predatory. That put her on guard.
Yet inquisitiveness kept her stare fixed on him.
The scent of him heightened. He'd found what he was looking for, and his body reacted by pulsing adrenaline through his system.
Me? she wondered. Had he wanted me?
She had no idea who he was. But she'd find out. Curiosity and the cat thing.
Striding forward, Aby was aware her hips sashayed and her steps moved her like a feline. Of course.
She could track the man with her eyes closed, but he hadn't dropped her gaze, nor did she feel the need to drop his.
It was when a new scent intruded, deep within the tendrils of his clean odor, that Aby paused. It was dark. Malevolent.
Was he human?
He smelled like it. And yet, something clung at the blurry edges of his being. An otherworldly charge. It wasn't enough to make her retreat. She could handle all sorts, and could determine paranormals from humans with ease, though she usually couldn't determine what type of paranormal.
She actually preferred paranormals to humans. They were more understanding of her, as she was of them.
The bartender set a shot glass of cloudy green liquid before the man. A slotted spoon rested over the glass rim, topped with a melting sugar cube.
Aby slid onto the stainless-steel stool beside the one he stood closest to. She loved the smell of anise. He must be drinking absinthe. How decadent.
"And for the lady?" the bartender asked.
"Whatever she desires," the man said in a raspy voice that reminded her of cool winter nights snuggled in a fuzzy wool sweater.
"Cream with a touch of grenadine," Aby said, and didn't turn to face him.
Winter nights? Oh, Aby, you're such a dreamer. The last time she'd gotten some sexy snuggle time wasnever.
Six horizontal neon bars gleamed behind the bar in varying shades of blue. Aby didn't like the color, nor, she guessed, did it grant her complexion the best glow.
"Cream," he said. "That's a new one."
"With grenadine," she added lightly. "I like it to be pink."
His smile wasn't at all mirthful. "Name's Max. And you are Aby."
That he spoke her name as fact pricked at the base of her spine.
Perhaps he'd spoken to someone here who knew her. A slim chance. Though she was amiable, she didn't go around shaking everyone's hands and introducing herself.
She scanned her memory for the man's face. Dark eyes, maybe blue, and a strong nose above nicely bowed lips. A shadow of stubble darkening his jaw and upper lip. Scruffy bangs over one brow. Styling products had never seen that head of sexy, carefree hair.
Nope, never seen him before. Which didn't mean much. Aby led a sheltered life.
The absinthe sat untouched before the man.
"Gorgeous dress," he said. "The color suits you. I like green."
Of course he did. If she had been wearing blue, she could guess he'd prefer that color. Just because she wasn't experienced didn't make her stupid.
"I saw your picture."
Aby tilted her head down. Severo had not been pleased when she'd agreed to pose for Wesley, but it had made her feel so free and utterly sensual. "And what did you think of it?"
"Cat's ears and tail, and some sexy slip of black lace? I don't think there's a man in the room who wouldn't find it attractive."
She didn't like his answer. It was less than personal. What did he think?
Aby sipped the pale pink cream from the wine goblet.
This didn't feel right. She should walk away and find Severo.
And yet, the stranger smelled so interesting. A girl could lose her sense of right and wrong from an enticing scent. Happened all the time. Hell, some claimed to fall in love at first sniff.
But Aby didn't know about that. She knew lovethe friendly, family kind. Romantic love? That was a mystery she'd like to solve.
"How do I know you, Max? What is your last name?"
"Maximilien Fitzroy. Whatever you've heard of me, don't worry, I'm just here to talk."
She hadn't heard of him, but should she have?