Christina peered through the dense shadows cast by towering oaks, sprawling maples and trembling locusts. This was Saint's world--the silence, the darkness, the odor of fresh earth and dewy grass filling her nose. The excitement and mystery clinging in the warm, balmy air made the blood race in her veins.
A distant howl pierced the night. More than likely it was Scepter, the half-domesticated wolf to which her son, Aidan, had become so attached. Saint's property attracted a surprising number of wild animals. Christina supposed it was due to Whitby being one of the few wooded urban areas. Animals made their way down the lakeshore from Wisconsin or suburban forest preserves, foraging for food and finding a haven on the wooded acreage.
Saint's property occupied six full city blocks, but at night it seemed to transform into an otherworldly landscape that stretched without end. Christina wondered if Saint knew she was aware of this night characteristic of his house and grounds.
That she knew so much of his singular character, for that matter.
Knowing Saint, he thought she rested as deeply and sweetly as Aidan had at age two, when she and her son had first moved to the coach house on Whitby's grounds. Saint always denied it, but Christina knew he'd taken pity on them back then, offering the coach house for a ridiculously low rent after learning from her boss that she could no longer afford her rent in the Lakeview neighborhood.
He'd been a friend and subtle protector over the years, but tonight, Christina Astor planned to force Saint to acknowledge she was a woman who desired him. She'd lived on his property for nearly a decade now and it was past time for him to acknowledge her as more than a renter and friend.
She'd been hyperaware of him at the charity function tonight. Since Saint sat on the board for the non-profit organization that operated several therapeutic group homes in the city for runaways, emotionally disturbed teenagers, and young adults, he'd volunteered to have the party on his grounds. It wasn't uncommon for Christina to be hyperaware of Saint--that was the norm, in fact--but tonight she sensed he was just as aware of her.
How many times had she looked up while standing amidst the crowd to see him watching her with those exotically tilted blue eyes? Too many to count. Christina had never been able to fathom how Saint could possess such a singularly cold stare and yet make her feel so hot. Raging flame trapped in ice--that was the essence of his gaze.
She longed to set that fire on a rampage.
She stopped dead in her tracks when she heard a woman sigh in the distance. Her bare feet wiggled in the cool grass as she hesitated. Something fluttered sickeningly in her gut, only to settle like hot, burning lead.
Saint wasn't alone.
What had she expected, anyway? Just because tonight seemed so perfect for what Christina had come to consider their fated union didn't mean Saint shared her opinion. He obviously didn't. The painful ambivalence she'd sensed in him earlier tonight must have gotten the best of him, given the fact that he was entertaining someone from his ever-changing harem of avid female worshippers.
She heard an ecstatic cry and a low moan.
Correction, Christina thought bitterly. Several someones.
Eyes narrowed in disbelief, she didn't do an about-face like her mind screamed for her to do.
After all of it--after all the buildup, all the heart-throbbing anticipation tonight, this was what awaited her? He'd come out to the gazebo in the silent early morning hours, just like she'd seen it happening as they'd locked gazes earlier.
He'd come all right. But he'd brought his own lovers.
She'd been so sure he knew precisely what she'd wanted tonight. And her intuitions were never wrong when they were this strong.
She anxiously sifted through her memories of the night. How could she have been wrong in what she'd sensed tonight? One of their charged exchanges came to her in graphic detail.
She'd been networking and offering information on Altgeld House to various contributors, board members, and other sympathetic community leaders. She instinctively found Saint in the crowd--not difficult to do since his head towered over everyone who surrounded him. His tousled light brown hair, streaked with strands of incandescent gold, looked glossy in the flickering lanterns and the glow cast by the tiny white lights hanging in the canopy of trees. He'd continued to meet her stare as he conversed with a bald-headed man and a woman wearing a large hat.
A shiver of excitement had danced down Christina's spine.
"Is it true what they say?" Melinda Marquette, another psychiatric social worker who managed a sister home to Altgeld House, asked as she leaned closer to her. Christina flushed, knowing the older woman had noticed where she'd been staring. "Did he really get the nickname Saint from all of his charitable acts and altruism? Or is it just an affectation to fascinate the ladies?"
"Come on, Melinda. Look at him. Do you really think he needs to use Hollywood devices to lure women into bed?"
Melinda chuckled softly. "No, I see your point. The man looks like a combination of a rock star and Jesus on steroids."
Christina pulled her gaze away from Saint's steady stare. "If it weren't for Saint Sevliss, you and I would be out of a job and all of our kids would be on the street. He's LifeLine's biggest contributor."
Melinda nodded wryly at the affluent crowd surrounding them. "The hype about this sicko who's been murdering young people, especially the lost ones like our kids, is certainly doing its fair share of bringing in donations to LifeLine, in addition to Sevliss."
Christina nodded, her mouth pressed into a hard line. It was a grim fact of life that the sociopath the media had dubbed the Youngblood Thief was bringing in tons of money to LifeLine from concerned philanthropists. The media had sensationalized the grisly murders to nauseating levels, but in doing so, had inadvertently highlighted the plight of a subpopulation of mentally ill and homeless young adults in Chicago.
Christina hated the fact that the sad end to four homeless, lonely kids by the horrific method of exsanguination--complete drainage of the blood from the body--was the cause of LifeLine's swelling coffers.
"They say Sevliss is the true leader of the city, you know, the shadow behind every union leader, neighborhood alderman, and councilman. They also say he doesn't need to avoid press because the media is in his pocket as well. But you must have juicy goods on him, living right here on his property?" Melinda prodded.
Christina just smiled and changed the topic. As much as she liked Melinda, she didn't gossip about Saint. She didn't because she knew instinctively how uncomfortable that would make him.
A few minutes later she'd spun around to snag a glass of champagne and an appetizer from a passing waiter. When she glanced up, Saint was standing directly beside her. He'd come without observable movement, without sound, and in typical Saint-fashion, without a shred of respect for the time it should have taken everyone else on the planet to cross the distance between them.
She quirked up one eyebrow as she looked at him.
"What?" he asked.
Christina laughed softly. She'd known him for eight years now and he still managed to pull off a poker face every time he exhibited yet another bizarre behavior. Did he really think she didn't notice?
She smiled up at him before she took a sip of champagne, never letting her gaze falter. "It's going very well, don't you think? We couldn't have had a better night for it."
He'd merely nodded as he stared down at her from his height of six-foot five-inches. He looked thin. Beautiful as an angel fallen from heaven, but too thin. She held up the pastry appetizer to his lips. It was a common thing for her to push food on him. He glanced down at her hand. His nostrils flared as he inhaled slowly but he shook his head in refusal.
Funny...he looked hungry.
"Go on, eat it. You're throwing this party, and I haven't seen you touch a morsel of all this fantastic food."
"I can't eat anyone's food but yours, Stina."
She smiled. Saint was the only person she knew who shortened her name to Stina. Given his typical laconism, she'd always prized the sound of the pet name uttered in his deep, husky voice. Maybe it was wishful thinking on her part, but it always sounded like an endearment on Saint's tongue.
"Right. If that were the case, you'd be capable of surviving on what--three meals a week, tops? Why don't you just say you're not hungry?" She chewed and swallowed while he watched her.
"Aren't you at least going to cut the silent act to tell me I look beautiful tonight?" she asked him brashly, not concerned in the slightest by his refusal to chitchat with her. Saint wasn't one for small talk. Never had been. How many times had he walked across the grounds and sat on the front porch with her, or with her and Aidan, said a total of a dozen words the entire time, before uncoiling his long frame from an Adirondack chair and sauntering silently back to the big house?
She couldn't imagine how he thrived in a social gathering such as this. He always managed to get exponentially more money donated to LifeLine's shelters and group homes than any board member, so he must not be entirely backward. But if he possessed an ounce of social acumen, Christina had yet to see it.
Saint was just...Saint.
He'd shrugged and blessed her with a rare smile. "Do you really need to hear that you're beautiful? Why state the obvious? Might as well say the sun is bright."
She paused abruptly in the act of lifting her champagne glass to her lips, her eyes flashing up to meet his. Had he really just said that? Saint never complimented her. At least not with words. With her special ability to read people's minds, however, Christina had always known he admired her...wanted her.
Not enough to ever do anything about it, she'd thought irritably. Not even after eight years of knowing her. But still, she'd known. She'd seen the expression of longing in his eyes, noticed how even the slightest snarl on his shapely mouth resulted in her boyfriends preferring to stay clear of Whitby altogether. Certainly Aidan's deadbeat dad, Rick, had avoided Whitby like the plague, but Christina suspected that had just as much to do with Rick being a loser as it did Saint's intimidating frowns.
Saint was always her silent sentinel...her distant lover.
She'd recently made it her mission to narrow that distance to nothing.