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The music swirled through the darkness, its beat rich, seductive. Night cloaked the ballroom, a mantle challenged only by the occasional flicker of a torch burning high on the rough-hewn stone walls. On the dance floor, couples swayed to the music, their bodies so close they almost seemed one. Heat and sweat mingled with the growing odor of lust and longing. Scents that stirred her senses, made her hunger.
Neva Grant looked uneasily over her shoulder. Though the moon was lost to the clouds that crowded the night sky, she could feel its presence. Feel its power.
The full moon was too close. She shouldn't be here. Shouldn't be doing this when the wildness within was so close to the surface.
But she'd made her promises. She intended to see them through, no matter what the cost.
She let her gaze roam the dance floor again. Somewhere down there, a killer lurked. A man who was using this secluded, exotic retreat as his own private hunting ground.
A man she had every intention of finding. And slaying.
She raised her glass and finished the last of her wine. The alcohol slithered warmth through her body, and perspiration beaded her skin. Hunger rose, flashing white-hot through her veins. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath.
Not tonight. Please, not tonight.
But the pulsing need suggested it was already too late for such prayers. The wildness had woken. It would not remain leashed for long.
Maybe she shouldn't bother even trying. The killer seemed to be choosing the more adventurous of this wanton crowd. Unleashing the wildness might be the quickest way of attracting his attention.
Bile rose up her throat, and she swallowed heavily. While she had no real choice about what she had to do tonight, she wasn't about to give the wolf within free rein. She wasn't like any of the hunters who danced on the floor below. Her world was one of sunshine and restraint, of trying to live normally.
These people rejoiced in the night and the power of the moon. They came to this mansion for the freedom and the safety it offered, seeking to sate the moon-spun lust surging through their veins. That was why most of the men were na**d. Why most of the women wore little more than wisps of material that covered everything and yet left nothing to the imagination. Only their faces were concealed. Once the moon's spell had faded and daylight returned, they would fade back to their packs, picking up their lives where they'd left off, not knowing the face of any of those they'd chosen to mate with the previous night.
Unlike her pack, these wolves were free spirits, exhilarated by the thrill of the chase, by the excitement of capture and possession. The belief of one mate, one life partner, had never touched these dark halls.
But for her promise, she would not be here tonight.
She put aside her glass, then adjusted her ornate mask and made her way down the stairs. The deeper shadows that lined the walls were filled with hunters in various stages of mating. She forced her gaze away, even though the wildness within yearned to watch. Hungered to join them.
Her stomach turned again. God, she hated this place. Hated everything it represented. Given the choice, she'd rather burn the Sinclair estate to the ground than be walking its halls. She wasn't a prude, far from it — she'd given in to the power of the moon more than once herself. But if it wasn't for this place, if it wasn't for the wanton and careless behavior of its guests, her twin sister would not now be lying in the hospital close to death.
Tears stung her eyes, and she took a deep breath. Don't think. Just do.
She moved onto the dance floor, inching her way past the slowly dancing couples. Her pulse throbbed in time to the music's heavy beat, and the deep down ache got stronger.
She clenched her fists and made her way towards the rear exit. She'd spent most of her adult life fighting the worst of her desires, and she would not give in now. Not fully, even here in this place of dark freedom.
And yet at the same time she knew she'd do whatever she had to — even unleashing the wildness — if in the end it led her to the man who'd attacked her twin.
She'd studied the files in Savannah's office before she'd come down here this evening. The killer had struck three times, each time near dawn and just beyond the boundaries of the Sinclair mansion. The victims were always alone, though forensics had, not surprisingly, found evidence to suggest each victim had taken more than half a dozen lovers the night of their deaths. Savannah and the other werewolf rangers who patrolled the Ripple Creek Reservation — which was the mountain homeland of the four Colorado wolf packs — believed the killer was shadowing his victims as they left the mansion, attacking once they were well clear of any help. But they had no proof of this, nothing more than scents and suspicions — neither of which were admissible in court — human or werewolf.
Savannah had been following one such scent when she'd been attacked by a silver wolf. Only the fact that she'd been in wolf form herself had saved her. The winter coat of their tribe was thick, and the silver wolf had been unable to gain any true grip around her sister's throat. But even so, her wounds were multiple and life threatening.
Neva had shared the last, terrifying moments of her twin's horror. And while she'd never wanted to go through something like that again, it was the link between them that had in the end saved her sister. Savannah had siphoned Neva's stronger psychic abilities and used them to finally fend off the wolf.
Neva closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Even now, her sister's pain edged Neva's consciousness. When she'd left home this evening, the doctors still weren't sure if Savannah would survive. Even she couldn't say with any degree of certainty. Savannah was hanging on to life by the slenderest of margins, and it wouldn't take much to snatch the lifeline away.
Which is why Neva had touched her twin's unresponsive mind and made a silent vow: She'd hunt down the killer and finish what her sister had started, if Savannah found the strength to live.
It may have been foolish, but it was better than sitting at home waiting for the worst.
Of course, she was no ranger. Far from it. She had no idea how to load a weapon let alone shoot, and she only had a wolf's natural skills when it came to tracking. But she was far from defenseless. Like most of the wolves of her tribe, she rated high in telepathy, but she was also almost off the scale when it came to empathy. The two abilities combined could be a deadly weapon if one knew how to use them properly — as the wolf who'd attacked Savanna had found out.
So far tonight, Neva had kept her shields well up. Skimming the minds of hunters when the moon bloomed was far too dangerous and would attract the kind of sexual interest she was trying to avoid. Besides, she might just alert the killer she was here, seeking him.
The rangers believed it was probably one of the Sinclairs behind the killings, but they were a large and closed-mouthed pack and had yet to provide the rangers with any real help. And while the Sinclairs were all silver wolves, they did not have a monopoly on the coat. Even in her pack, which were primarily golden-coated, silver could be found.
She'd never find the killer roaming the outskirts. It was doubtful if even the rangers could. It had to be done from within the Sinclair stronghold. And there was only one way she could achieve that. Goose bumps skated across her skin, and she sent a silent prayer to the moon for strength.
She'd spent a good part of the day studying the Sinclair lineage. The wolf she'd chosen to seduce was the pack leader's third son. By all accounts he was the wildest of them all, but he was the only one who'd been away when the first two murders were committed. Safe — or as safe as any of the Sinclairs could be.
She'd also spent time studying the mansion's floor plans before coming here, and she had talked to Betise, a regular customer at her family's diner. Though barely thirty-six, Betise had been attending moon dances at the mansion for a good twenty years and knew the place almost as well as the Sinclairs themselves. It had been Betise who told her that Duncan Sinclair rarely joined the dance before midnight, and that before then he could usually be found close to his rooms on the west side of the mansion.
She hurried out the rear doors. The night breeze stirred her flimsy skirt. Its touch was cool against the fever-kissed skin of her thighs. She glanced skyward again, judging the time by the position of the moon she could feel, not see. Close to midnight. She had to hurry. She tugged the delicate material clear of her bare feet and ran to the back of the mansion.
A cherub-filled fountain came into sight. She slowed, scanning the windows until she found his. Her heart was beating so fast it felt as if it would tear free of her chest, and she knew its cause was fear, not exertion. She'd never done anything like this before. Didn't know if she even had what it took to attract, and hold, a wolf with Duncan Sinclair's experience.
But she had to try. It was the safest way to gain full access into the mansion.
She could only smell one wolf in the rooms above, and there were no others in the immediate area. Betise's information had certainly been accurate. If she pulled this off, she was going to keep the woman supplied with free coffee for the next year.
She walked over to the fountain and stripped off the flimsy excuse for a gown. Then she stepped into the icy water, avoiding the worst of the water-tossing cherubs as she turned her attention to his window.
Everything she'd learned about him suggested he liked a chase and preferred his mates to be sexually adventurous. While she could never claim to be that, she was a wolf and the moon was high. And Betise had offered more than a few tips.
But she couldn't exactly send out a blatant invitation to the man. The rules of the moon dance said no names, so she had to be a little more devious. The Sinclairs were the only other wolf pack who were strong telepaths, so she just had to make it seem he was catching her thoughts.
Lord, I ache tonight.
She kept her mindvoice breathy, wistful. For several tense seconds, nothing happened, then his presence stirred and walked across to the windows. She dipped her fingers into the water and wet her neck, letting the cool droplets dribble between her br**sts.
Hunger surged through the night, a force so strong it almost knocked her over. His need for the dance was high. Very high. The thought churned her stomach, but she was here now and would not back away.
She let her gaze roam the windows until she saw him. If his shadow was to be believed, he was big. Bigger than she'd expected. She cupped another handful of water, sipping it quickly to ease the dryness in her throat.
Why do you ache? The moon is high and the night free.
His mind voice was rich, husky, and stirred her senses with longing. She clenched her fists. She had to remain in control. She couldn't let the wildness free.
Perhaps I am choosy.
You can be choosy as many times as you like on a night such as this. Amusement swam across her senses, warm and sensual.
Perhaps I long for a more careful seduction once the initial fire has passed.
His silhouette stirred. She caught the brief glimpse of a muscular arm before the shadows closed in again. A difficult request when the moon rides high.
So it would seem. She arched her back, stretching her arms skywards. The emotive swirl of his thoughts became a wall of heat. He wanted her, of that she was certain. Whether he would take her was unclear. He hadn't yet moved from his dark hideaway.
Perhaps I should go home. The moon, it seems, offers me no comfort tonight.
He hesitated. Perhaps we should talk on the matter.
The bait had been taken. Now to snare him fully. But the elation that ran through her was tempered by the knowledge that true victory would mean spending the rest of the week in this man's bed. But it was a small price to pay when her sister's life hung in the balance.
She considered him a moment longer, not wanting to seem too eager. You are little more than a shadow to me. I cannot discuss possibilities with someone I cannot see.
The French window opened, and he stepped out onto the balcony. Her heart slammed into the wall of her chest, then it seemed to drop somewhere in the vicinity of her toes.
He was tall, close to six foot, if not over, his build quietly powerful, but lean like an athlete's. His hair was dark and long, full of unruly waves that brushed his shoulders. His face was that of a dark angel's — beautiful, and yet somehow sinister. And while it may have been true that the eyes were the mirror of the soul, this man's were shuttered and painted black. There was nothing to be read in his expression — or the lack of it. If not for the sensation of hunger that burned between them, she would have thought him uninterested.
Do you like what you see?
She gave a disinterested shrug. Looks are not the measure of the man. Even though this man's looks were stirring her in ways no man ever had before.
A wise statement for one so young.
She raised her eyebrows, a smile teasing her lips. And that is a very condescending statement from one so young.
Amusement touched his sensual mouth. He crossed his arms and continued to regard her in that disinterested yet oddly disturbing manner of his.
I have squeezed many years of living into this young body, believe me.
So his reputation had suggested. Had she any other choice, she would have stayed far away from this particular wolf and his wild, hungry ways. But he was the only Sinclair the rangers did not have under suspicion and, therefore, her safest route into the Sinclair stronghold.
Ah. Then perhaps you have little interest in one less well travelled. She picked up her gown and pulled it on. The sheer material clung to her damp br**sts and caressed her aching ni**les. Again his need swam around her, a blanket that smothered, leaving her breathless.
I did not say that.
No. She hesitated and stepped free of the water, then raised her gaze challengingly to his. I intend to leave. But if you can find me before I depart these grounds, we shall ... talk ... more on this matter.