Alix looked up, her smile of professional welcome pasted on her face, but it froze.
"Alixandra Lancaster?" To her knowledge, such a gorgeous specimen of humanity had never before entered the door of her jewelry shop. Tall, dark, handsome, and well built. Just how she liked her men. Not that she'd had one for a long time.
Used to spotting quality at a glance, Alix took in the smoothly tailored dark suit and crisp, custom-made white shirt instantly. His blue silk tie matched his suit. No flamboyance, but everything he had on spoke of excellence. He wore gold-framed spectacles, something she only noticed when he moved his head and the lenses glinted in the light. Very discreet.
He came forward, a friendly smile curving his full lips. "I'm Deverell Wyvern. I called about the art nouveau pendant, remember?" His English accent held a slight lilt, one Alix was unable to place, but she liked the seductive sound.
"Of course." Alix exchanged a glance with her brother, behind the other counter in the shop, set at a right angle to hers. "This is my brother, Clay Lancaster. We own Lancaster Jewelry."
Clay stepped out from behind the counter and shook hands with their new customer. Wyvern stood several inches taller than Clay but was leaner. Alix approved. Clay's penchant for boxing had given him broad shoulders and a bull neck. While she wouldn't describe Deverell Wyvern as a lightweight, she'd bet running was his sport or maybe swimming. Unlike Clay, whose physique revealed his favorite sport, the taller Wyvern had the build and grace of an athlete. Alix blinked, forcing her thoughts back to the immediately relevant. The sexiness of her customer didn't speak to the point, however much she wanted it.
The art nouveau-style pendant Wyvern had called about was an exquisite piece and, as such, costly. She didn't know if Deverell Wyvern knew the piece's other significance, the reason Clay had chosen to use expensive newspaper space to advertise it. That was why they had looked forward to this new client and why Alix felt a fluttering in her stomach. Nervousness, not raw animal attraction.
The pendant would draw people in. One particular kind of person, and it might have actually worked. Wyvern had called the day the ad appeared and seemed very interested in the jewel.
They'd checked his credentials. Not difficult. Although British, Deverell Wyvern worked internationally for a large auction house. With that in mind, and desperate to quash her highly inappropriate lustful thoughts, Alix cleared her throat. "I was surprised you were interested in jewelry. Isn't your area of expertise old master paintings?"
His smile didn't waver one iota, but turned on to her, it seemed to deepen, warming Alix right through. "You've checked me out, then. Very wise, considering the value of the items you have in stock." He glanced at the locked glass cases on the far wall, displaying some of the treasures they had for sale. They kept a couple of pieces locked up in the bank, but most were here. Security and insurance proved among their greatest expenses, but even in this upmarket area of New York, robberies happened with alarming frequency. The shop lay close to the Metropolitan Museum, not in a prime shopping area--they couldn't afford that--but discreetly situated near some very exclusive restaurants and art galleries, designed to attract the discerning customer.
"This is a private purchase," he explained. "Nothing to do with my work. My mother collects dragons. They're on our family crest. I saw this in your ad in the paper, and I knew it was just the kind of thing she'd like."
Clay strolled unhurriedly back behind the counter and brought out a black velvet box. "Here it is." He opened the box toward Wyvern, not adding any professional flourishes as he might have done with lesser objects. This piece didn't need any flourishes.
Alix knew it well. A large enameled disc emblazoned with a black dragon on a red ground. The artist had depicted the dragon brilliantly, every scale perfect, his mouth open in a great roar, frozen in place forever. A tiny ruby formed the eye, glinting balefully in the artfully set lighting of the shop. The medallion was thicker than one might expect, but pieces from that era often had a deliberately handmade look. It hung on a thin gold chain, which when she had slipped it over her head earlier came to just above her cleavage, but it had fastenings, which meant it could be worn as a brooch too. A show-stopping jewel.
"Ah," Wyvern said, great satisfaction in his tone.
"What is it?" She exchanged a wary glance with Clay. "While the piece is well done, it's not Faberge or Liberty. At least, we haven't found the marks."
After his first, impulsive exclamation, Deverell Wyvern fumbled in his pocket and came out with a loupe, the antique expert's magnifying glass. He flicked it open and studied the jewel in silence, bending over where Clay had laid the box on the counter.
The vent at the back of his jacket fell open. Alix suppressed an appreciative and very unprofessional moan. Wyvern had one fine butt, expensive wool fabric stretched invitingly over the hard mounds she could imagine under her hands. Alix's mouth watered.
What was she doing? She'd last gone to bed with someone months ago--Joe, her boyfriend of the last three years. Alix just wasn't cut from the kind of material that drew men. She dressed to avoid it and told herself she didn't need that kind of attention, but sometimes, just sometimes, she'd have liked the occasional leer. Perhaps that caused her sudden obsession. Perhaps she needed to look for someone else. She'd just kept herself too busy recently.
"Like what you see?"
The voice in her head came so clearly, as though someone had spoken, but her ears told her no one had. It sounded like Deverell Wyvern's voice.
Shock reverberated through her. That inner voice meant they'd found one of those people her brother's friends called deviants. They had known someone like that would answer the advertisements about the pendant. Someone with psi abilities, someone to capture and destroy. Alix didn't want that happening. Not now she'd seen what they'd caught.
Clay belonged to an organization called the Perfect Human Race, the PHR. She'd belonged once. They'd had no choice. Their parents had belonged, so they had too. Her parents had brought her up with the idea of the existence of other beings, beings that looked human but weren't. Once the PHR had abandoned any attempt at humanitarianism, formed into cells in a pseudomilitary style, she'd had enough. She had left the PHR. A shame Clay hadn't left too, but she loved him, and she wouldn't abandon him before she'd had a good try at getting him to leave too.
She glanced at Clay, but he seemed oblivious to the message she'd heard in her head.
She didn't reply, although she could have. A low chuckle resounded in her head. Did he know she could hear him, sense his soft, insidious presence? Frantically, she slammed down all her mental barriers.
Clay cleared his throat, and she jerked her head up to meet his gaze. He frowned, his heavy brow creasing over his blue eyes, asking her a question. She ignored the signal, just smiled and shrugged as if nothing had happened.
Wyvern straightened. "What do you want for the jewel?"
Clay hesitated. "We were thinking around five thousand dollars."
"Five thousand is expensive for this kind of piece. I'd pay that to make my mother happy, but I can't do it without damaging my reputation as a valuer and auctioneer." He reached into his inside pocket, came out with a black leather wallet, and paused before he opened it. "Two thousand."
Clay glanced at Alix. "We might be able to come to an arrangement about the price."
Wyvern glanced from him to Alix, and something arced between them. He replaced the wallet in his pocket. "I'm in town for a week, so of course I can give you some time, but I would rather take the pendant now. I thought I'd take a few days off, and there are few better places than New York to spend some time." His dark green gaze settled on Alix. "It would be better with company. I'm distressingly single." His smile invited her, and she smiled back, enjoying the touch of intimacy, before she recollected his shocking communication with her.
"Won't you talk to me?"
He'd broken through her defenses as though they didn't exist. Working hard to hide her shock, Alix looked down.
Clay pointedly ignored the moment of intimacy between his sister and their new client, but Alix knew he had seen it. Her brother's blue eyes gleamed bright with speculation, and she didn't need telepathy to know what he was thinking. We've hooked one! "We have some paintings of our own we want to have assessed, and you're the expert in that field. If you'd look at those for us, we could come to an agreement about the pendant."
Wyvern frowned. "I'm not sure. Triscombe's Auction House pays for the exclusive use of my services."
"Let me take you to dinner, and it's a deal."
She tried to block and nearly winced at the power he used to stop her. It felt like a sudden, vicious headache lancing through her head, a mental foot in the door she usually slammed against any kind of telepathic communication.
"We inherited them when our parents died." Clay spread his large hands wide in a gesture of friendship. "We have an apartment in Jersey City where we keep the paintings. Why don't you join us for dinner tonight? Then we can discuss the deal?"
Alix watched her brother set the bait. She couldn't bear it. "I'll talk to him; you don't have to have dinner with us. Take the pendant and go."
She saw his shock, just in his moss green eyes, a spark of recognition. Oh no, she hadn't meant to speak to Clay telepathically. He hated any reminder of her ability. It was only panic when she remembered what Clay had in store for him.
"I couldn't possibly--" Wyvern began, but Clay interrupted him.
"No, I insist. Let me give you the address." He took a business card from the pile on the counter and scribbled on the back, then handed it to Wyvern. "I've put down the phone number in case you get lost, but it's quite straightforward. What do you say?"
Wyvern took the card and stared down at it. "You're really most kind." "I want to get to know you."
Oh God, what had she done? This man was telepathic, a target for the PHR. By luring him to their apartment, she would put him in danger.
"You'd be helping us out," Clay said, smiling. "Our parents left a few things we're not sure about, and these paintings were among them. We'd really appreciate your opinion. Then we could take your fee off the price of the pendant."
Wyvern smiled, the tension leaving his face, and slipped the card into his pocket. "I'd be glad to do that for you, as long as I can put the business Triscombe's way if it's in our line." He meant if the paintings proved good enough.
"I think we can deal," Clay said calmly, as though discussing a mere business arrangement, when it meant so much more than that.
Wyvern nodded, standing so still Alix thought he'd stopped breathing. It lasted barely an instant. Then he turned and treated her to his charming smile. "I'll look forward to dinner. It will make a welcome change from hotel food." "And so much better than eating alone," he added, the mental connection for her alone. The connection felt too intimate for her, too close to the core she kept secret.
As soon as Wyvern left the shop, Alix turned on her brother. "He can't be one of them, he's too...too--" She bit her lip, angry at herself for nearly letting her attraction for the stranger slip. Her secret attraction to Wyvern would lie between her and her busy fingers for a few nights to come, before she could persuade herself to forget him. She'd seen good-looking men before and hadn't felt like this. Thoughts of heated embraces between the sheets came unbidden to her mind. Not a good idea when trying to conduct a business deal. And that communication. She had to stop their taking him somehow.
"You know for sure?" Clay watched her carefully. "You managed to read his mind?
"No." Perhaps that would do, although she hated lying to Clay. "If he really is a telepath, he'll feel it when I try to probe his mind, so I need to study him for longer and get him relaxed. But he can't be a monster. He just doesn't look like one." She remembered the shivering, naked creatures in the cells beneath the farmhouse where she'd lived for a time. She couldn't imagine Wyvern there. Clay had told her about these monsters, out to destroy mankind, but she never truly believed it. Being telepathic didn't make him evil. But the PHR would condemn him on that basis. The only reason Clay kept her ability a secret was because she'd struggled all her life to overcome it, and it gave him an edge, both over her and in detecting the monsters he sought out and destroyed. Besides, he loved her. He'd risked his neck to help her keep her gift quiet.
"What, you think they go around with horns and tail showing?" Clay sneered, his thin lip curling up. "Oh no, Sis. They're far too subtle for that. They want to control us, kill us if they can. But we know that pendant means something to them. Remember how we got it."
She remembered, though she wished she could forget. The PHR had killed people to get the jewel; shape-shifters, they had said. She wasn't at all sure. Not sure at all. She'd seen the pictures, the scaly skin and the broken wings, the blood. They could have faked it with material glued on after death just to attract the attention of the press and the politicians. Neither group had shown any interest, so they'd decided to take more drastic measures and capture one alive, using the pendant as bait.
"You can't treat people like that, Clay." He was her brother, and she loved him. He couldn't have killed, just knew about it. Not that. Please don't let her brother be a murderer, she pleaded to whoever might be listening.
"I'd agree with you if we were talking about people." His suave smile and professional smoothness totally gone, Clay crossed the wooden floor to reach out and take her hands in his over the glass-topped counter. Jewels winked in the case under their linked hands. "These aren't real people, Alix. These are animals, and they're out to get us. You've seen the proof."
She thought she had. Her parents had brought Clay and her into the PHR. Now she doubted the truth of the teachings. It couldn't be right to fight evil with evil, whatever the reason.
While she'd left the organization, she hadn't felt immune to a lifetime's teachings. That all deviations from the "normal" human form were bad, essentially evil. In her mind she knew that couldn't be right, but sometimes she had knee-jerk, Pavlovian reactions without thinking them through. And she'd seen some terrible things. She shuddered. "I saw people nearly drained of blood, others ripped to shreds. You told me they were vampires and shape-shifters.
"They're not the only evil out to get us. There's that organization, here in New York. We're still no closer discovering that. Now we've drawn one out. We have to take this chance, Alix." He regarded her for a long time, his blue eyes boring into hers, willing her to answer. "You know you have some traces of the perversion. I've done my best to help you to recover. You're my sister, and I won't have you hurt, but you must help me in return."
Alix sighed and nodded. "I'll do it." If she refused, they would find another way of trapping Deverell Wyvern. She would lie, say she read nothing in the handsome stranger. That would stop the PHR's persecuting him, and he could still have the jewel for his mother.
His grip tightened on her hands. "You like him, don't you?"
She nodded. She found Deverell Wyvern profoundly physically attractive. He'd touched her deep inside, stirred her as none of her boyfriends had
She should have known she couldn't hide that from her brother.
"Shame you never took to Steve. He's got the hots for you, babe; he always has, and he'd look after you. You know that."
Alix repressed a shudder when she thought of Clay's best friend, Steve Garfield, with his heavy, muscle-bound body and small, pale blue eyes that watched her intently wherever she moved. Besides, she didn't want to get involved with any members of the PHR. She'd left the organization years ago, and she'd never go back. Steve would look after her all right. As long as she behaved herself and did as he told her.
Clay's heavy forehead creased with lines of worry. "This is dangerous work, but we're doing it for all the right reasons. We can't stop until we've won, but I won't put you in danger. But you like him." He grinned suddenly, the smile taking years off his appearance. "Tell you what. I'll tell Steve to call me. If you've read Wyvern by then, and you can't find anything--if he isn't what we think he is and his story about his mother is for real--give me the word, and I'll go."
She smiled. That might work. They had to share an apartment if they wanted anywhere half-decent, but they'd long ago arranged a code if they wanted to spend time alone or bring someone home. The other would make an excuse and leave. Yes. Then she could warn the man and get him away. And she'd have an hour or two alone with him first. She didn't want to get close to anyone, afraid once they discovered her guilty secret they would label her a deviant, but what could an hour hurt?
"I won't go far. Call me, and I'll be home in ten minutes. Just hit my number on your cell." He released one of her hands to pick up the black velvet box. He closed her hand over the pendant. "Probe his mind. Find out if there's anything there. Nothing else. We'll take it from there if you find something." His smile tightened, and Alix knew what he wasn't saying. They would take Deverell Wyvern and kill him after they'd tortured what information they could find out of him. "If you don't find anything, have a good time. But make absolutely sure first."
She swallowed. "You'll take him away if I find anything?"
Not if she could help it. Nobody would suffer the fate of those poor people she'd seen that horrible time. Not on her say-so. She still suspected the PHR had killed them and then covered their bodies with some fabric that simulated dragon skin. Dragons didn't exist.