"I don't think so," she said, flushing slightly. He made her uncomfortable on so many levels. One, he scared the hell out of her. Two, he was terribly attractive, reeking of masculinity, of simple strength. Like a man who knew himself. Third, there was an electricity about him. Frightening, compelling. If she had met him under different circumstances… And last, there was the way he seemed to see right through her.
"No, I don't think we should talk," she repeated, looking away uncomfortably.
Where was Julian? Damn. Over there, flirting with a pretty twentysomething.
"I think I can help you."
Her eyes met Blackhawk's. She felt as if she had heard him say those words in a dream… In her sleep? Or in another vision created by a guilt-stricken mind?
"This is a very bad time for us," she murmured.
"Yes, I know. And I'm sorry."
"Thank you." Her voice remained stiff.
"But I… well, I think you need help, and I can help you."
"I'm blessed with very good friends," she told him.
He nodded, smiling. "Look… just have a drink with me?"
"I'm not drinking much these days."
"A coffee, then?"
She lifted a hand, indicating Madame's.
"Away from here," he said, grinning. Nice grin. Brought out the charm in his features.
So why was she afraid of him?
Because he might make ghosts real?
"I… um… "
"You saw her tonight," he said flatly. "You saw your friend, Andy, the one who was murdered."
Her jaw nearly dropped.
She shook her head. "No, no… of course not. She's dead. Ghosts aren't real."
He stared at her, smiling knowingly.
"What would make you say that?" she asked, feeling sick. "I mean… how could you know that?"
"Because I saw her, too," he said softly.
* * *
Brent's heart went out to the beautiful young woman. Torment, mistrust and, strangely enough, something like hope were at war with one another in the depths of her eyes. She stood stiffly, unyielding, and yet…
"You know," she said, "my friends are beginning to think I'm crazy."
"That happens," he told her.
"Great. So they'll wind up having me locked up. And you're not helping me at all, though I'm sure that's what you think you're doing."
"I can help you," he assured her. "If you'll let me."
She smiled then, ruefully. "Julian will never let me go off with you alone."
Brent studied the man who had been her defender in the fracas in the street and who had accompanied her to the police station. Was the man her lover? The thought disturbed him. Admittedly, he had felt an attraction to Nikki DuMonde, the sort of attraction he hadn't known in years. It was one thing to look on a woman and judge her as stunning. Youth itself was often beautiful, and Nikki was right at that age, in her mid to upper twenties somewhere, when the sophistication of maturity had combined with all the elements of face and form to give her an added elegance. He was alive after all. In the years since Tania's death he had lived and breathed, gone through all the stages of loss, met and been attracted to several women, made love, and…
Moved on. The world was filled with people. Those you met along the way. With whom you shared something… and moved on. A moment, an evening, a few weeks, even a few months.
But there hadn't been… this.
Back off, he warned himself.
He never mixed work with anything personal. He and the others involved with Adam's agency, were often the butts of jokes, due to their focus on the paranormal, but they were still professionals.
But there was something about Nikki DuMonde…
It wasn't just her appearance, it was her…
The essence of her existence.
Her eyes, her passion, her movement, the sound of her voice… everything about her.
"Is Julian your fiancé? Your boyfriend?" he asked politely.
She smiled, lowering her eyes for a moment. "No, he's my best friend. My very best friend for years."
Brent smiled. "But he doesn't believe a word you're saying, does he? He thinks you've concocted ghosts in your head because you're traumatized by Andrea Ciello's death."
She looked uncomfortable, and he knew that he had judged the situation correctly.
"I told you, my friends think I'm crazy."
"So… what do you think?" he demanded.
Her eyes narrowed. "Just what are you? A cop?" Then she smiled self-mockingly. "A psychic cop or something?"
"I'm not a cop at all."
"I work for a civilian agency that does a lot of strange work for the government," he told her. "But we work privately, as well."
"So will you have coffee with me?"
She hedged. "I don't see Andy anymore," she murmured.
"No, she isn't here."
Nikki hesitated again. "Did she… talk to you?"
He shook his head. "I didn't actually let on that I knew she was there."
"Oh, sure, of course not," she scoffed.
"She trusts you, not me," he said.
"Oh. So ghosts have to trust you to talk to you, huh?"
"Depends on the ghost," he said evenly, despite her combative tone.
She hesitated. For a moment he was certain she was going to blow him off.
"Give me a minute."
Brent watched as she walked over to Julian. The last of their tour group had said good-night and moved away.
Julian didn't trust him, Brent knew. Plus, he was very protective of Nikki. He'd been pleasant enough when Brent had joined the tour, but then, Brent had paid for the privilege of walking around and listening with the others.
Now Julian was clearly arguing with Nikki. But he didn't dissuade her. Apparently arguing with Nikki just made her determined to do the opposite. He would have to remember that.
When she turned to join him again, Brent saw Julian watch her walk toward him. The other man had a coffee cup in his hand and he lifted it in salute.
"'Night, then," he called. "Hey, where are you two going?"
Brent mentioned a hotel bar, one of the most frequented in the area, trying to assure Julian that he wasn't taking Nikki off anywhere alone or unsafe.
"Have a nice night."
Nikki joined Brent.
"He kind of sounds okay with this," Brent said, smiling, as they turned to walk down the street.
"No, he thinks I'm an idiot. Am I?"
"He'll probably be following us."
"Is that a warning?" Brent asked her softly. "Because I really have no evil intent."
"If you're going to play with my mind right now, I assure you, that is evil intent."
He sighed, silent. A group who had been on the tour passed by, calling out, "Great tour—thanks!"
"My pleasure. Come back for one of our other tours," Nikki called back.
"I. swear, I could almost see ghosts," one of the women said, laughing, as the group disappeared.
The hotel was just up at the corner. Brent moved ahead and opened the door for Nikki. She murmured her thanks, and they made their way to the bar.
It was quieter than many of the local establishments. A pianist played softly, mainly performing show tunes. Businessmen were ranged in some of the oak booths. Women returning from dinners out were nicely dressed. Average tourists sat around in shorts, tank tops and halter dresses. Only two seats at the bar were empty, and only three booths were available. A hostess with copper skin, inky dark hair, a flashing smile and a pleasant cologne led them to a private little recess.
They sat, and Nikki opened her mouth to speak, then hesitated as a waiter approached them. She ordered a latte with shaved chocolate. Brent opted for the same.
The waiter moved on.
Nikki looked at him and smiled with no humor. She smoothed a cocktail napkin nervously with both hands.
Her fingers were long and delicate; her nails a medium length, lacquered in a clear polish.
"So you're not a cop or an FBI agent, but you have access to the police, and you're walking around with the picture of a dead man, making once-sane people think they've gone over the edge. Or you're a shrink of some kind, making a study of the human mind," she said sharply.
"Okay, then… how long have you been seeing ghosts?" she asked.
"A while," he told her.
"You're Indian, right? Whoops, sorry, the term these days is Native American."
"Lakota. One grandfather."
"So… " She paused as the waiter arrived with their orders. He didn't seem distressed that they weren't drinking, since the lattes cost more than aged brandy in most establishments.
As soon as the waiter left, Nikki stared at Brent, aqua eyes hard and searching. "So, tell me, did you get into this whole ghost thing by peyote smoking or something?"
She was scared and angry, he knew, and therefore on the offensive. Still, he felt tension ripple through his muscles.
The little stirrer he'd been using snapped between his fingers.
"No. It had nothing to do with peyote."
"Okay, sorry," she said, stirring her latte. "This is just… you can't imagine. I don't think I'm sane."
"But you are."
"All right, so you see ghosts," she said. "And, according to you, it's perfectly natural that I see them, too, and we should have a nice long chat about our spectral companions."
"I never said it was perfectly natural," he told her.