She played with the little stirrer, mixing the shreds of chocolate into the whipped cream atop her gourmet latte.
"So we're back to insanity?"
"No we're not. Some people are born with a musical ear. They can pick up an instrument and play a tune with no training while others can attend class after class, but never really learn how to play. Some people are born artists."
"So you were born seeing ghosts?" she demanded. "I guess that gave new meaning to the term imaginary friend."
He shook his head. "What I'm trying to say is that there are gray regions in life. You're afraid right now. I don't blame you. Questioning your own mental health can be even more frightening than admitting you commune with ghosts. It's not perfectly natural, no. But it doesn't make you a lunatic. All scientists know that there are still things in the world that defy logic and explanation. We understand gravity, life, evolution, ages long gone. We're constantly questioning faith. Men live and die for their beliefs. But none of us has the definitive answer."
She offered a skeptical smile. "Not even you? Don't your ghosts fill you in on everything?"
He shook his head. "Ghosts are usually wandering around a little lost themselves."
"Right. It's that thing about a violent end, or a need to finish something, find someone, even take revenge, right?"
It was half sincere question, half skepticism.
"There are different reasons."
She looked down, smoothed her napkin again. He had gone for his own. Their fingers brushed. She looked at him, startled, and he returned the intense stare, equally aware of the electricity between them. A tremor shook the length of him. She was appealing on so many levels, sensual in the most natural of ways, the opposite of internationally provocative.
She didn't trust him, though. She wanted him at arm's length.
He drew his fingers away, afraid that he would lose her if he wasn't careful, that she would stand up and leave and demand that he stay away from her.
"Nikki, I believe with my whole heart that I can help you. And I also desperately need your help in return."
She didn't bolt, though her eyes remained downcast. Then she looked up at him again. "Who was the man in the picture you showed me today? And when did he die? Was he supposedly dead when I saw him at Madame's? Or was he killed after?"
He shook his head. "The ME could only give an approximate time of death. I think he might still have been alive the first time you saw him, but in serious trouble. I don't know. And who was he? An undercover FBI agent, a man above reproach. The kind of guy who couldn't be bought, not for any price. He'd been undercover in some of our worst slums, among the most heinous drug lords, in war zones. He was on to something here. He managed to keep his cover by keeping private until he really had something."
"You knew him?" Nikki asked.
Brent shook his head. "No. That's part of the problem."
"How do you know he was so lily white, then?" she asked softly. "And why is it a problem that you didn't know him?"
"I work for a man who travels in the highest government circles possible. But he never trusts anything without proof. Adam Harrison always goes to the people who knew someone best, those who were closest. When you don't hear anything but lily white all the way around, you can pretty much bet it's true."
"So I thought he was a bum, and he was really a great guy. There you go. I'm a great judge of character, huh?"
"You saw what you were intended to see," he told her.
"Why is it bad that you didn't actually know him yourself?"
"Because he didn't know me, either, so he has no reason to trust me now. But you saw him again. On the street the other night, and that's part of the problem, right?"
She licked her stir stick absently.
The tremors rocked through his body again.
Business. He was a professional. A professional ghost buster, some mocked, but still a professional.
Never mix business and pleasure. Never. Not in this. Not in matters of life and death. Not when there was the least chance it could weaken the perception or the wits…
"I saw him, yes," she murmured. Then she stared at him with her huge eyes pleading. "They must have made a mistake. He isn't dead. It's someone else—"
"And you know," he added, "that Andy is dead, as well."
She looked at him, smiling sadly. "Yes, Andy is dead."
"But you keep seeing her."
"Yes," she murmured, looking down, then quickly back up. "She even changed clothes. From the T-shirt she was wearing when… to the suit I chose for her funeral."
"She's here to help you, you know," he said softly.
"Help me? So far, my friends think I'm nuts, and I nearly alienated a woman on the tour tonight."
He smiled ruefully. "It can be difficult, to say the least."
She twirled her swizzle stick in her now-empty mug. "Maybe I do need a drink," she said. "No, no, I'll start seeing polka-dotted elephants or something."
"Another latte?" he suggested.
She looked at him suddenly, aqua eyes assessing.
"You're telling me mat I have a special gift—something like an artist or a musician has. And it's been drawn out because Andy wants to help me. And you—whoever you are—have the same gift. And I'm not insane."
"And other people have this gift, as well?"
"Why haven't I ever heard of it?"
He shrugged, hands lifting. He was careful not to touch her. The scent of her perfume was so subtle. Like the whisper of her movement, the touch of her breath.
"Surely you've read stories about… well, hauntings. Usually written by people on the periphery. Those who have a touch of something on a different level than most people even experience. Those who have to become deeply involved… well, they're usually fairly circumspect about the whole thing."
"Um, sure," she murmured.
"I need your help," he repeated.
She sighed, staring at him intently again.
"And you need mine."
"Just… just exactly what do you want from me?"
"I need to get to know your ghosts," he said flatly.
"Can't you… just walk up and introduce yourself?" she asked, half laughing. Her laughter faded uneasily.
"They don't know me. They don't trust me."
"Andy would have loved you," she murmured. She shook her head. "Exactly how do I introduce you to my ghosts? I never actually had a conversation with your dead agent. I saw him at Madame's—either dead or alive—and again in the street when he was definitely… dead. And as to Andy… I never actually know when I'm going to see her."
"We can look for her. Together," he said. "If she knows that you trust me, maybe she'll trust me, as well."
"I don't know that I do trust you," she said.
"I think you do," he chanced.
That brought an uneasy flush to her cheeks.
She stood. He thought she intended to run.
"I don't need more coffee, and I don't need a drink. Walk me home," she said.
"Of course," he told her.
Julian was definitely nervous about Nikki going off with the stranger. Not that he controlled Nikki's social life, but something about the man bothered him.
And Nikki wasn't in her right mind. Not since Andy's death.
When they had walked away, he'd watched uneasily.
Paced in front of Madame's.
Then Madame herself had come out. "What's going on?" she asked.
"Um… Nikki… uh, kind of has a date," he told her.
"I see," she murmured, staring down the street. She was silent for a minute. "I don't think Nikki should have a date right now, do you?"
"I can't tell Nikki what to do," he said.
"You might have discouraged her."
"So… she's seeing ghosts, huh?"
"She's really upset about Andy."
"Of course." Madame studied him. "Do you know the guy?"
"Kind of. We met him the other night, then saw him at the police station."
"Cops have been known to be… "
"Be what?" Julian demanded.
"Dirty," Madame said softly.
"Think I should follow them?" Julian asked.
Julian stared at Madame, then sped off after Nikki and Blackhawk.
He didn't like it. He didn't like any of it. The strange guy… the talk of ghosts. It was far too unnerving.
It wasn't healthy. Not for anyone.
"This is a great apartment," Brent Blackhawk said, eyeing the place from the porch.
"I know. I love it," Nikki said. They stood awkwardly before the door for several seconds.
"I'll wait until you're in and the place is locked up," he told her.
She felt the breeze brush by her hair. The light scent of whatever cologne he wore drifted along with it. The solidity of his presence was ridiculously reassuring.
And frightening. She didn't really know him. He was definitely beyond the ordinary. She wondered idly what this moment would have been like if they'd been on a date. She'd always had her personal set of rules. A first date was a get to know you, and that was that. She was a big fan of Sex and the City, had all the episodes on tape, but that wasn't her lifestyle. In everything, personal and business, she had a tendency to be slow and careful.
But if it had been a date…
Her heart was racing as if this was the moment for a first kiss. The whisper of the breeze was perfect, seeming to urge her to step closer. Revel in the feel of his skin. The heat of his body. She was almost tempted to tilt her chin, close her eyes, smile, part her lips… wait.