Grateful for air-conditioning, I maneuvered my way through the throng of people in the well-lit, computerized lobby and entered the farthest elevator, exclusively used for the penthouse. My data—both real and fake—had been programmed in, and the scanners readily accepted me as who I claimed to be. The ride inside the decadent box was long but smooth. A satin-covered bench occupied the far wall, and a cooler with single-serving wine sat next to it.

When I reached the top, the doors slid open and I stepped into a world of utter self-indulgence. Gazing around, I inhaled the aromas of leather and cotton, expensive commodities in this synthetic world, where alien and human wars had destroyed so many precious things. Plush recliners, overstuffed couches. Glass tables. Double holoscreen TVs. Two wet bars, fully stocked.

Everything was voice and fingerprint protected.

I did a quick walk-through, making sure that I was alone. I was. Good. I found the two hidden doorways that Michael had installed, making sure they opened properly. The one located on the kitchen floor squeaked, so I oiled it down. Wouldn’t do to let the bad guys know my location. It led to a safe room. The other door, which opened smoothly, led to a slide that would take me straight to the bottom of the building.

My bed, I noticed, was covered in blue silk and lined with what looked to be sheer lace. I knew the material was a protectant and would seal out poisons and gases. And yes, two people could easily fit inside it.

Everything was in order. That was all I’d needed to know.

I took a cab for several miles, then walked the rest of the way to the farmhouse, all the while making sure I wasn’t followed. A girl could never be too careful.

Agent Luc was waiting for me. The moment I stepped through the door, she bounded from her floor pillow. Ren, the agent I’d left in charge of her care, growled a clipped, “Be still, dog.”

“Watch your tone,” I snapped. I crouched down and pet Luc’s soft, clean fur. She sighed happily. “Missed me, huh?”

I quickly showered and changed into a fancy dress suit, then Marko drove Luc and me back to the airport to await pickup. What a busy day so far, and I knew it was only going to become more hectic from this point on.

Thankfully my civilian driver, or rather Claudia Chow’s, arrived not long after, and I soon found myself gazing out of a limousine window. I shifted impatiently in the soft leather seat.

The mission, for me, had officially begun.

Agent Luc lounged next to me and rested her chin on my leg. Absently I stroked her fur and tapped my high-heeled foot against the floorboard. This part of New Dallas offered a plethora of scenery, most of it bleak. One moment a series of towering buildings and speeding cars could be seen; the next I saw wide-open spaces, tumbleweeds, scrubby trees.

I’d always thought of myself as a patient woman. But right now, everything inside me screamed tohurry. Not because I yearned to see Lucius, I assured myself, but because I wanted, at last, to begin helping with this case.

An hour passed. My lips dipped in a frown, and I shifted in my seat again. Why couldn’t the ambassador of alien goodwill live closer to the airport?

I’d read the file on Claudia Chow. She’d been born to privilege. She’d married young—a man also born to privilege. She’d never known a moment’s hardship in her life. When her husband had been alive, the two of them had enjoyed hunting animals and traveling the world.

Now she spent her time fighting for alien rights. That didn’t make sense to me, didn’t seem to fit her background. I was to translate for her at parties, meetings, and any other events she chose to attend. I sighed.

She owned a ranch on the outskirts of the city…a sprawling ranch now visible on the horizon. Thank God. My back straightened, and I grinned suddenly. Happily.

“We’re almost there,” I told Luc, excitement dripping from my tone.

She blinked up at me and licked my hand.

I patted her between the ears. “Be careful around the ambassador. She used to hunt animals. She might still.”

Luc licked me again. She trusted me to keep her safe, and I liked that.

I returned my attention to the ranch. It was red and white, wide and sprawling, with notched wooden posts anchoring the first floor to the second. Armed guards roamed the edges of the property, as well as around the home itself. They weren’t human. They were purebred Ell-Rollises, creatures so thought-dependent they could only follow the dictates of their master.

“You’ve got to show total courage while you’re here, girl,” I said to Luc. “If anyone suggests one of those guards hurt you, they’ll do it without a moment’s thought. So don’t go outside without me.” I traced a hand down my braided ponytail and muttered, “Maybe I should have left you with Michael.” I didn’t want her hurt.

I’d intended to leave her behind. As I’d strode out the front door, however, Luc had bounded behind me, whimpering with every step. I’d been reminded of every time Michael left me behind for a mission—every time I’d cried for him, wanted him to sing me to sleep. I hadn’t been able to do the same to Luc.

Who could have known I’d turn to mush over a dog?

She licked my leg.

With such a fierce companion, I thought dryly, I might not need the modified rifle, silencer, and hollow-point bullets in my bag. Of the two of us, though, I was in more danger than Luc. Michael had told me Ambassador Claudia Chow liked to collect other-worlders. All races. “I bet she’d stuff and mount me if it were legal.”

Agent Luc gave me yet another lick.

Honestly, I despised humans who used other-worlders as trophies. “Ah, look at my alien,” I mimicked with sugary sweetness. And I didn’t care if the driver heard me. I was a pampered princess. A diva. “Isn’t it pretty?” My lips pursed. If Claudia treated me that way…

One of the guards must have notified Claudia of my arrival, because the moment the limousine eased into the long, winding gravel drive, she stepped onto the slatted porch. I studied her. She wore her black hair in a severe twist, had perfectly applied makeup, and her long, elegant body was molded into a conservative black silk suit. I would have put her age at thirty, but I knew she’d just turned forty-six. She was an attractive woman who obviously knew her power and reveled in it.

The car stopped, and my door instantly opened. An Ell-Rollis stepped toward me and extended his hand. “Thank you,” I told him cooly. Game face on. Sweet, air-conditioned air became hot and fragrant with the smells of summer and horses. My nose twitched as I stepped outside.

The Ell-Rollis didn’t speak. He did smile at me, revealing razor-sharp yellow teeth. The smile seemed out of place on his lizardlike features. He must have been ordered to greet me with a welcoming grin.

Agent Luc jumped beside me and sat, my ever-watchful guard. At least she didn’t fall asleep. As if she had heeded my warning, she eyed the Ell-Rollis warily.

With absolutely no expression on her face, Claudia closed the distance between us and folded me in her arms. For show? Most likely. I didn’t welcome the embrace, but I did tolerate it. She stood a few inches shorter than me, forcing her to stretch on her tiptoes when she kissed both of my cheeks.

“Welcome,” she said, her voice cultured, refined. Her eyes were brown, and up close I could see the freckles scattered over her nose.

“Thank you.” I smiled sweetly, not a single hint of falsity. I hoped. “I’m very happy to be here.”

“Let me look at you,” she said, releasing me and stepping away. Her dark gaze drifted over me, slowly taking my measure in a full body once-over. “So much gold. It’s stunning, really.”

Want to check my teeth? Perhaps tag my toe?I gave her a wider grin. “Thank you. That’s nice of you to say.”

“Did someone tinker with your DNA,” she asked innocently, “or are all Rakas as glittery and golden as you?”

“We’re all like this, I’m told.”

“I’m simply eaten up with jealousy. You must look at yourself in the mirror a thousand times a day.”

“Yes.” The answer of a princess.

“We’ll make sure no one tries to de-skin you. I’ll take measures to protect you.” She patted my cheek, just as I sometimes did to my dog. “You and I are going to get along famously, I’m sure. Giles,” she called over her shoulder. She even clapped her hands together. “Take Miss Black’s bags to the Yellow Room.” To me, she added, “Yellow will blend so nicely with your golden skin.”

“I won’t need my bags taken to the Yellow Room. I have an apartment in the city.”

“Nonsense. I want you to stay here. No reason for you to travel back and forth.”

Oh, no, no. “I prefer to stay at my own place. That’s one of the reasons I moved away from my father.”

Claudia’s brown gaze sharpened, and she inched toward me in a subtle I-am-in-command-here pose. “I prefer to have you here. With your dog, of course. It’s welcome to stay, as well, and will have more room to run and play here.”

“I’m sorry, but I must insist—”

“And I must insist that you stay.” Her eyes gleamed with determination.

“That was not part of our arrangement,” I said, striving to maintain my calm. Should I throw a fit?

“I’ve now made it a part of our arrangement. If that’s a problem…”

Then she would find another interpreter. I’d lose my cover. Why such insistence that I stay? I wondered, fists tightening. Still, I gnashed my jaw and didn’t offer another argument. Studying the apartment, oiling the secret door, had been for nothing. Great. “The Yellow Room sounds lovely.”

The moment I spoke, her expression softened, and she grinned happily. Her teeth were white, perfectly straight. “Wonderful. I knew we’d get along. Giles,” she called again.

A tuxedo-clad Genesi appeared behind her. His race possessed wrinkled gray skin that folded over in layers. I’d killed a Genesi once. A female. She’d emitted some sort of humming energy that tinkled like bells as she fought me. Those bells had grown in volume and had nearly burst my eardrums by the time I finished her off.

Without looking me in the eyes, the Genesi walked stiffly past me and to the car, hefted my bags in his arms, then pivoted on his heel. I allowed this without protest. Most of my weapons were hidden securely in everyday toiletry items. Even if he searched my things for hours, he’d never find anything out of the ordinary.

“Now, tell me about your friend,” the ambassador said, motioning to the dog. “What’s its name?”

“Hername is Luc. She’s leery of men,” I added, patting her head, “so it will be best if your male servants leave her alone.”

“I think it’s marvelous that you have an Earth-born companion.” Ambassador Chow’s face blanketed with a hint of sadness. “My companion is gone. A virus took him.”

I didn’t mention that I myself was Earth-born. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

She waved her hand through the air and forced a smile. “It was so long ago. Are you thirsty, my dear? I’m sure you are,” she answered for me. “Let’s adjourn to the drawing room. We’ll have lemonade and get to know one another better.”

With Luc clopping at my side, I followed the ambassador and strolled eagerly inside, my form-fitting calf-length skirt crinkling with my every movement. Cool air blasted me, shivering through my clothing and onto my too-warm skin. That brief stay in the sun had overheated me, I realized.

I blinked away the red-gold sunspots and studied my new, temporary home. Comfortable looking, yes. But…My hands curled into fists again. I wanted my apartment. As we sauntered down a long hallway, one of the first things I noticed were the animal heads that decorated some of the walls. Deer, coyote, and wild hog, all of which were endangered and illegal to possess or kill.

I’d expected something different for the elegant Claudia Chow. Yes, I’d known she hunted animals, which was now illegal without a government license, but I’d thought…I don’t know what I’d thought.

She glanced at me over her shoulder. “What do you think of my home?”

I decided to be truthful. Less complicated that way. “The animal heads give me the creeps.”

“Really?” She frowned, genuine surprise flicking through her eyes. “Almost all of your people seem to enjoy them.”

My people? Did she mean Raka or all other-worlders? Either way, it didn’t seem like something an Ambassador of Alien Goodwill should say.

We finally stepped inside the drawing room, a room boasting animal skulls and bird feathers. Interspersed throughout the carcasses were lace doilies and flower-filled vases. My God. This had to be hell.

Hiding a grimace, I waited until Claudia seated herself in a floral chair before I claimed the rosy pink settee across from her. Luc sat at my feet, still looking wary. Between Claudia and me was a small, rolling table piled high with cookies and lemonade.

Except for the dead animals, the scene reminded me of a period piece. An old movie, perhaps, with ladies and gentlemen and proper manners. I suspected Claudia cultivated the image purposefully. To relax her guests? To disarm them?

Ever the gracious hostess, she poured me a glass of tangy lemonade, and I tentatively sipped. I hated anything sour, and this proved to be completely devoid of the sweetness I preferred.

“Martha,” she said, “please bring Luc a bowl of water.” Orders given, Claudia offered me a cookie.

I readily accepted. It, at least, possessedsome sugar. If I could have only one food in the entire world, that would be it. Pure, granulated sugar. I nibbled on the edges of the cookie and sighed with satisfaction.