By telling him, she would completely validate the story Lucius had given him. Why, thank you, Ambassador Chow. “That truly would set my mind at ease.” I placed my fingers over my heart in a show of relief. “You are wonderful, Ambassador Chow. Truly.”

“Please. Call me Claudia. And I would do the same for any other alien. I believe other-worlders should have the same rights as humans.”

“Claudia,” I said. “If only everyone believed as you do.”

The limo slowed, then stopped altogether in front of a towering white stone mansion, surrounded by a narrow cerulean river and an electric fence. My heart began a fast, erratic dance. We were here. Multicolored and multisized cars littered the grounds, and throngs of formally clad people meandered toward the arched bridge that led to the house. Moonlight stretched and yawned over the entire enclosure, as golden as I was.

I tried not to smile, but I felt, actually felt, the hum of Lucius’s energy. He was inside. And he was waiting for me.

Our mission was about to reach the next level.

Chapter 14

The party overflowed with humans and other-worlders, twinkling jewelry, and rich fabrics. Real cotton, real silk, not the synthetic versions worn by the masses. The room fairly buzzed with activity. Amid a thick haze of illegal cigarette smoke, expensive perfume, loud, laughing voices rolled through the air like a cadence of ocean waves. Candles glowed from wall sconces, giving off a dim, antique light. Alcohol flowed like a giddy river.

Mahogany floors, plush carpets. Every piece of art hanging on the walls depicted a woman in different stages of dishabille and seduction. Several alabaster columns with ivy twined around their entire lengths stretched to the vaulted ceiling. The elegance surprised me. This foyer and living area did not resemble the modern, vibrant office I’d seen when ghost-walking.

I remained at Ambassador Chow’s side as we worked our way through the throng of guests. Both men and women, humans and other-worlders, constantly slid their gazes over me in speculation. The humans speculation soon turned to appreciation for my golden color. I could almost see the direction of their thoughts—my skin and hair decorating their walls.

I scanned the crowd for Lucius, for EenLi, for Jonathan, but I saw only strangers. Every few minutes, Claudia paused to speak with someone. I forced a casual, this-is-exactly-what-I-want-to-be-

doing tone each time I translated her conversations with the other-worlders.

Most of the complaints, as Claudia had predicted, were about discrimination. A Mec’s office was wrecked by humans. An Arcadian—a race known for their white hair, psychic abilities, and dabbling in mind control—wanted the laws changed so he could marry his human lover. A catlike Taren had been locked in an A.I.R. jail for two weeks because he’d been accused of stealing a dress from a human. When the dress had been discovered in the back of the human’s closet, the alien was released but without an apology.

Claudia offered each of them a fervent assurance that she would speak to the Senate and do everything she could to get their problem resolved. I hoped she followed through. I was an other-worlder, but I’d never known these prejudices, and it struck deep that others had. Michael had always protected me. If someone had looked at me oddly, they were never again allowed inside Michael’s house. If someone said a derogatory word to me, they were never heard from again.

“You’re not too bored, are you?” Claudia whispered when we had a rare moment alone.

“Of course not.”

“I haven’t seen Hunter.” Her gaze darted left and right as she made sure we weren’t overheard. “Hopefully I was wrong, and he won’t dare show his face here.”

Just then a tall, handsome man stepped from the crowd and approached us. Jonathan Parker. I recognized him instantly. Blond. Strong. He wore a black silk suit that fit him perfectly. Our gazes met, and his thin lips played in a welcoming smile. Up close, he reeked of money, self-indulgence, and confidence.

“Hello,” he said to me, barely sparing Claudia a glance. His low, seductive timbre scratched across my nerve endings.

“Hello,” I returned, using my huskiest voice. I even managed a soft, welcoming smile without gagging as I held out my hand.

“I’m Jonathan Parker.” He clasped my fingers and lifted them to his mouth, then placed a line of kisses between each of my knuckles. “You must be Ambassador Chow’s new assistant.”

“Yes, I am.” Did he think I’d be charmed by such a display? Of course he did. He fancied himself a smooth-talking ladies’ man. I shook off my revulsion as images of his dead wives flashed inside my mind, and fluttered my lashes. Coyly I withdrew my hand. “I’m Eden Black.”

“Such a lovely name.” His heated gaze swept over me, lingering on my cleavage. “Eden…a man’s paradise.”

I chuckled seductively, as if I’d never been so flattered. The action stretched my acting talent to its limits. “I certainly hope so.” Bastard. The man was married, was supposed to be helping Lucius win me, yet here he was hitting on me as if I’d jump instantly into his bed. Naked and ready.

“Jonathan,” Claudia said, a stern edge to her tone. In that moment, she was all business. She pinned him with an equally stern stare. “I’m glad you found us. I need to talk to you about something very important.”

Still his gaze remained on me. “You know I’m always willing to listen to your causes, Ambassador Chow.” His voice had lost its sensual edge and was now crisp with formality. “First tell me where you came to find this vision of loveliness.”

“She found me, and I’m grateful that she did.”

“I needed a change of scenery to escape a bit of…unpleasantness at home,” I said, “and Claudia needed a translator.”

“Unpleasantness?” Jonathan replied, his eyes locked with mine. “Please tell me you were not subjected to the types of discrimination Ambassador Chow is always complaining about.”

I glanced (shyly) away. “I wish it was that simple.”

Maybe I’d take Parker out after EenLi. An employee perk, if you will. Everything about him irritated me. Changing the subject, I said, “Claudia has spoken so highly of you, Mr. Parker.”

“Please, call me Jonathan.”

“Jonathan,” I said, pretending to savor the name. I definitely deserved an award for my performance. How could Lucius say I wasn’t a good actress?

“Jonathan, Imust speak with you.” Claudia stepped in front of me, a silent demand to be heard. “I’m afraid Eden is in danger. The unpleasantness she mentioned has followed her here.”

I moved beside her and watched Jonathan arch a perfectly sculpted brow. “Danger?” He grinned slowly. “How ominous that sounds. Whoever would harm such a delicious creature?”

“You,” she said.

“Me?” His face darkened and twitched with affront and I caught a glimpse of the killer he tried to hide. “I can assure you I would never harm a woman, and certainly not this one.”

“Not you personally, but through your association with a certain individual.” Claudia’s voice rose, projecting to those hovering around us.

He frowned, and his gaze moved over those people in a silent command to go about their business. “Perhaps we should move this conversation elsewhere,” he suggested.

Claudia shot me a triumphant grin. “I knew he would help us. I’ll only be a minute, Eden. Jonathan, can you guarantee she’ll be safe while we’re gone?”

I think he wanted to ask who she thought would hurt me, but thought better of it out here. He already knew the answer, anyway. “Of course,” he said. He turned to me. “If anyone accosts you, there are Ell-Rollises posted along the edges of the room. They each have pyre-guns under their jackets and have been ordered to subdue unruly guests.”

Claudia employed Ell-Rollis guards, as well. Had Jonathan given them to her? They could be in league together. After all, I had to wonder why she wanted to talk to him without me. “You two go on,” I said. “I’ll be fine. I’m going to make a quick trip to the ladies’ room.”

Jonathan’s gaze lingered on me for a long while, classical music floating around us like a gentle breeze, before he led Claudia away. When they disappeared in the crowd, I followed the path they had taken. They passed two half-man, half-lizard Ell-Rollises, then Jonathan scanned his fingers into an ID box. A bright blue light enveloped his hand. A door slid open, and I caught a glimpse of light wood, those red and purple columns, and those fuchsia and yellow bookshelves before the door shut, cutting off my view.

I had to get into that room. But how? Secret door? I blinked. Yes! Of course.

In all of Michael’s homes, he had installed a secret door to every room. He wanted to be able to get inside anyplace at anytime, as needed. I bet Jonathan was the same. Men with something to hide, as well as men with something to find, liked unlimited access. Liked watching and listening when others didn’t know they were watching and listening.

Michael could get to any room in his house through a hidden corridor that began in his bedroom. Jonathan would have that, too. I knew it.Felt it. In his bedroom, he would be able to lock himself away for hours, do anything he wanted, no one the wiser.

I didn’t have long before Jonathan and Claudia finished their chat, so I had to act quickly. During one of our phone conversations, Lucius had given me the layout of this house—just in case. Well, just in case had arrived. I knew Jonathan’s bedroom was upstairs, third door on the left. There were probably guards upstairs, so I’d have to be careful.

I’d need a distraction. Nothing overt, just something to draw attention away from the stairs. I spun slowly around, thinking, gazing, studying. An idea hit me and I grinned. When a waiter passed me with a tray of red wine, I claimed two glasses. There, below the steps, was a woman in a sleek white dress, speaking with several men. Her hair was salon red, her skin sun-kissed, her makeup perfectly applied. She’d obviously spent hours preparing for this event.

Determined, I strode toward her. The different layers of scarves I wore danced at my ankles. Another female passed the group just in front of me, and she was holding her own glass of wine. When I reached her, I tripped her and “accidentally” tripped myself, spilling both of my wineglasses. Both women screamed as red liquid cascaded over their hair, their clothes.

The entire room seemed to turn toward them, intent on finding out what had happened. “Towels,” I said. Several others began muttering about towels. “I’ll get them towels.” Without another word, I slunk up the staircase as quickly as possible.

No one tried to stop me. When I reached the top, I meshed myself behind the wall and into a shadowed corner. Just beyond, I could hear footsteps pacing back and forth. One…two sets, I realized.

I didn’t have time to spirit-walk. Didn’t have time to learn their nuances and sneak around them. Determined, I reached up to remove my hairpins—but I paused, dropped my hands to my sides. Killing them wasn’t necessary, and I didn’t want blood on my dress. I quietly palmed the miniature pyre-gun strapped to my thigh and programmed it to stun. My adrenaline spiked—even as my feet ached. Damn heels.

Say hello, boys,I thought, leaping into action, racing straight for them, not even pretending to be lost. My hair swished back and forth down my back. Immediately I saw that both Ell-Rollises were holding pyre-guns. They were startled to see me and raised those guns to shoot. But they paused when they realized I was a woman, and their scaled, yellow faces darkened with confusion. That pause cost them.

I fired two shots in quick succession. A stream of blue light erupted, nailing one. The second stream slammed into the other. They froze in place, where they’d be locked in stun for hours, unable to move. But I couldn’t allow them to later tell Jonathan what they’d seen, so I fed them the hallucinogens. They wouldn’t know what was real, what wasn’t. They might even be blamed for stunning themselves. I bypassed them and quickly worked at the ID box that locked the bedroom door. A few seconds and two cut wires later, I was inside the room, the door closed behind me. I sheathed my gun.

Before I could revel in my victory, a hand smashed over my mouth and jerked me into a hard, hot body. I recognized Lucius’s decadent scent. Recognized the contours of his chest. I’d felt it that day in the woods, had seen it in my dreams. Still. Grab me, would he? My eyes narrowed. It was time to prove to this man he wouldn’t always get the upper hand with me.

I shoved my elbow into his stomach once, twice. He puffed out a breath, and his hold on me loosened. Spinning around, I kneed him. Hard. I didn’t curb my strength. He dropped to the fluffy white carpet with a pained moan. While he was down, I slammed my fist into his temple, and his head whipped to the side. I didn’t want to break his nose or blacken his eye. Not because I liked him, but because it wouldn’t do for people to know he’d been in a fight.

“Don’t ever grab me again,” I told him quietly.

“Dear God,” he said. There was pain in his eyes, but also respect. And admiration. “You’re in a slinky dress, and you look like a lady. You shouldn’t do that to a man.”

“I’ll do whatever it takes. Always.”

“Good to know.” He lumbered to his feet and massaged his balls. “Don’t ever hurt the boys again. I get vicious when they’re threatened.”

I rolled my eyes. “What are you doing here?”

“Same thing you are, I’m sure, and there’s no time to waste. This way.” He grabbed my hand—I didn’t hurt him this time—and led me to a mural of naked, frolicking couples. He reached out, caressing his fingers between a redhead’s splayed legs.