"They'll fight to the death for their freedom; they epitomize what it takes to be truly free."
“How’s that, Mikhail? Neck feeling better?”
Zee Kirkwall parted the opening of the richly colored Indian silk fabric that formed the tent that surrounded her massage table, and ushered her latest client out into the harsh lights and bustle of Ballroom No. 2.
Too bad she’d had to move her booth out of the relatively quiet corner of Ballroom No. 3, but the varying scents drifting into her space from the Deathly Buzzings Marital Aids booth had proven too much for both her clients and for her.
Massaging the kinks out of a werewolf’s lower extremities wasn’t made any easier when her client went rigid every time someone next door opened up the tester vial of Full Moon Massage Oil.
Not to mention the havoc wreaked on her own concentration by the sex toys impregnated with Eau de Catnip. Roger Ing had tried to accommodate her, sealing all the offending items in ziplock bags, but the damage was done. One of them had had to go.
Mikhail Voskov rotated his neck and shoulders with a sigh of relief. “Much better, Ms. Kirkwall.”
“Remember to alternate sides of the neck when you feed. I know you’re a lefty, but if you need to change it up.”
“Of course,” the vampire nodded as he pulled on his leather jacket. “Allow me to express my gratitude. Would you join me for dinner later?”
Zee pasted an expression of regret on her face. “Er, no. I have plans.” Luckily, this was true. “Rain check?”
Voskov sighed. “Alas, I fly out at midnight.”
Literally, she thought. “Another time.”
He bowed cordially. “Until then.” A soft pop, and Vostov was flying above the chattering crowd that perused the wares offered for sale at the ParaPleasures Expo.
He was her last scheduled client of the day. But instead of relaxing, her body hummed with adrenaline.
Time to put aside her cover as proprietress of Magic Touch Massage, and get down to her real job.
She moved to her display table, intending pack away her brochures and business cards.
“I have a delivery for you, Ms. Kirkwall.”
Zee looked up at the sound of the husky, feline purr. Amanda Bast, Dunvegas’ hostess and right (and left) arm of the seldom-seen Mr. Fritz, stood holding a tiny package between her gold-tipped fingernails. She was a vision of perfection in a matching gold suit that left very little to the imagination. Though standing perfectly still, the woman somehow managed to give the impression of slow, sinuous motion. A fact very few nearby hot-blooded – and a few cold-blooded – males missed.
Feeling a little dowdy in her own purple scrubs, Zee reached out and accepted the package gingerly, just avoiding getting stabbed by Amanda’s lethal looking claws.
“There’s a note attached.”
“Yes, I can see that.”
Amanda’s tip-tilted eyes glowed. “It could be an invitation.”
“Ah, yes, maybe.”
Amanda leaned over the table, generous breasts nearly falling out of her top, and ran a single finger along Zee’s wrist. “If it is, I hope you’ll consider inviting me along, too.”
Zee was running out of time. She caught Amanda’s wrist in one hand and stroked the back of the woman’s hand with the sensitive pads of her fingers. Underneath her polished, cool exterior, Amanda Bast was a seething mass of cat in heat. Zee leaned in close to her ear.
“If it is, I’ll pass it on to you for your own enjoyment. I have other plans tonight.”
Amanda withdrew, lazy smile in place. “Do.” And she slinked away, every pair of male eyes in the area following her path until she disappeared through a set of double doors, which were guarded by two frowning, sunglasses-clad gargoyles.
Zee took the chance to slip inside her tent unnoticed, letting the flaps fall closed behind her.
She turned the tiny, square package over in her hand. It was about the size of a condom packet. With one fingernail she lifted the edge of the folded note taped to the blood-red wrapping.
“Aw.” She smiled and tucked it into the pouch around her neck. Whatever it was, if it was catnip scented she didn’t need to be opening it here.
Within seconds she stripped bare, skin reacting instantly to the chill, damp air of the subterranean ballroom. It was kept that way to keep the odors of various preternatural food samples down to a minimum. Dragon kibble tended to get stenchy after a few hours outside the freezer case.
Her sensitive nose caught a trace of a familiar scent, there and gone in an instant. She froze in place, arms instinctively crossing over her goose-bumped breasts.
William? No, couldn’t be. There was no way her rival in high-end thievery could have tracked her here. Thanks to a well-timed tip and the tipster’s heavily paid-for silence, she was days ahead of him.
She had the stone in her possession, pried from the fireplace hearth of Mr. Fritz’s office itself. The object had come out of its niche easily, as if it had just been placed there and the mortar hadn’t quite dried. She shrugged off the nagging sense of uneasiness at how simple it had been to get past Mr. Fritz’s massive security system.
Within an hour, she’d be several million dollars richer. Rich enough she’d never have to steal for a living, ever again. Rich enough to disappear for good.
Yet just the memory of William’s scent inexplicably made her insides go liquid, made her want to lean against the massage table and stretch like the cat she was, slip her fingers between her legs and tease herself.
Nonsense. William MacGillivray was her rival and the bane of her existence.
She chalked it up to going several months without while she’d tracked the stone’s unusually rapid path through the labyrinth of the black market. The thing certainly had all the characteristics of a hot potato.
She had no idea why a 6-inch cube of Scottish granite was so valuable. It was one of many gleaned from ruins around the world to add authentic touches to the Dunvegas casino and resort. She only knew someone was willing to pay a large fortune to get it back. And that was all she needed to know.
Right now all she had to do was pick it up from its hiding place, meet her buyer, and she’d be out of here one rich-assed werecat.
She closed her eyes, tilted back her head and willed the shift to begin. It never happened without at least a little bit of pain, which she bit back easily as she felt bones melt and reform, skin change texture and develop its thick, black-and-grey striped coat.
The shift complete, Zee smiled to herself and headed for the flaps of the tent, confident no one would notice her passage.
With a muffled poof, the package she carried in the pouch around her neck exploded, shooting grey-green dust straight up her nostrils.
Catnip, her rapidly fuzzing mind observed. And not just ordinary catnip, this stuff was on steroids.
Coughing, every one of her senses rioting from the overdose, she lurched through the tent opening.
Straight into a live-trap cage.
Panic screamed down her nerve endings as the spring-loaded door snapped shut and someone shoved her, cage and all, into an oversized rolling suitcase. The cage was too small for her to shift back, not that she could have done it in her herb-crazed state.
She could do nothing but fling herself against the sides of the cage and yowl.
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