Feeling more like an errant schoolgirl than the lady of the house, Isabella Ruiz paused outside her father's office. It didn't matter that she was twenty-seven years old and director of a multi-million dollar foundation. Her father continually thought of, and treated her like, a child.
She smoothed down her narrow skirt and tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear before announcing her presence with a firm knock.
"It's open." Though muffled, her father's voice was easily recognizable.
She pushed the door open and stepped into the book-lined room. "You sent for me?" A touch of annoyance revealed her impatience. She had too much to do to indulge her father's need to run her life.
"Actually, I requested your presence." Like the welcome caress of a steamy shower, an unfamiliar voice flowed across her senses.
She turned and looked at the speaker, expecting someone as dark and sensual as his voice. Nearly black and filled with secrets, his thick-lashed eyes were the only feature that fulfilled her expectations. His hair was blond, short on the sides, yet longer on top, with a tendency to spill across his forehead. She wanted to push her fingers through those wayward strands, removing the distraction from his sculpted features. With his muscular build and light complexion, the stranger looked more Viking than Valentino.
He pushed to his feet and held out his hand. "Steffen Ziegler." Dressed in jeans and a pullover shirt, he was worlds apart from the staid executives who usually visited her father.
"If you asked to see me, I presume you know my name." His long, cool, fingers enfolded her hand and awareness rushed across her nerve endings. Her heartbeat staggered then raced, unable to find a steady rhythm. She inhaled slowly and licked her lips.
His gaze focused on her mouth and those night black eyes began to smolder. "I know many things, Ms. Ruiz. I just hope you're willing to benefit from my experience."
Her brow arched at his arrogance. "Is there a particular subject in which you wish to enlighten me, or shall I just bask in your august presence?"
"Bella." Her father's tone snapped with warning, but Steffen smiled.
"Your father told me you can be ... challenging. Why don't you have a seat and I'll explain why I'm here?"
Unusually aware of her every movement, she slipped into one of the two chairs situated in front of the mahogany desk. She crossed her legs and took a deep breath, amazed that her father would allow anyone else to dominate a conversation. It wasn't like Hector Ruiz to accept a passive role in any situation.
Steffen moved to one side of the desk and crossed his arms over his chest. She could see both men without turning her head, which was likely the reason he'd chosen the position. The odd awareness lingered, subdued by the lack of physical contact, but undeniably there.
"Do you know the Burton family?" Steffen began.
"I know of them." She shot her father a confounded glance, wishing she could send her thoughts as pureblood Dichotomy could. Who was this guy? How much did he know about their people?
Easily interpreting her expression, her father said, "Steffen knows about the Dichotomy. You may speak freely."
She turned back to the handsome inquisitor. "Have the Burtons acted inappropriately? What do they have to do with me?"
"The Burtons are in the middle of a blood feud with the Nicholsons."
"The Burtons would object to that characterization," her father said. "The Nicholsons have been fugitives for years. The Burtons have simply been the focus of their hostilities."
"We have reason to believe their focus has expanded to include the entire council."
Bella tried not to reveal her impatience. "Father employs a fulltime security staff. Threats against the council are nothing new."
"And will this fulltime security staff be able to protect you from beings who can instantaneously appear and also penetrate your mental shielding?"
"The Nicholsons have no such abilities."
Steffen unfolded his arms and took a step toward her. "The Nicholsons are no longer your primary concern. If I'm not mistaken, Valerie is the only one still on the loose."
"She is," Hector confirmed. "Now stop sparring with Bella and get to the point."
"Valerie has formed an alliance with a vampire named Taerok."
"A vampire?" She looked back at her father, but his features remained expressionless. "Vampires are even more xenophobic than we are. Why would a vampire align himself with an obscure Dichotomy?"
"A very good question." Hector rested his hands on the desktop and gazed at Steffen expectantly.
"We're not sure about Taerok's motivation, but they're definitely working together."
"Or at least they were three weeks ago," Hector said. "There have been no new attacks in all that time. Isn't it possible the vampire was hired for that one occasion?"
"Possible, but not likely."
The Dichotomy could sense each other. Even a halfling like Bella recognized the unique energy pattern of her father's people. Steffen wasn't a Dichotomy. In fact, she'd never sensed anyone quite like him. Sunlight spilled into the office through the open blinds, so he couldn't be a vampire. Could he?