He studied her face and hair, his gaze pausing on a detail, then roaming again, intimately, like a visual caress that made her shiver even in this heat.
Being the center of that intensity bumped up her heartbeat in a funny way. Part suspicion and part attraction.
Neither made her comfortable.
She took a step to the side, then busied herself with checking that everything was ready to go when her bike was always ready to go. “See you at the diner, okay?”
“I’ll be there.”
She could feel him thinking. If he was Tzader or Quinn, she’d just demand he tell her what was bothering him, but she hesitated with Isak. He was an unknown entity.
He had a gleam in his eye that made her wonder if he picked up on her thoughts. “There’s one thing I haven’t figured out about you.”
She’d pulled on her helmet, but the face shield was up as she straddled the bike. She laughed derisively. “Just one thing you haven’t figured out? I can’t wait to hear what.”
“I’m curious about your aura. Yours is … different.”
He can see auras? Crap. She’d anticipated a lot of questions, but not that one.
“Different?” she asked, hoping he missed the slight quiver in her tone. “How so?”
“It’s not human.”
Piedmont Park covered over sixteen city blocks of open green space that linked thick stands of trees, a small lake and recreational areas most people found relaxing.
Evalle knew what could lurk in all those dark corners at night, and none of it was relaxing or fun—at least not for the victims. She left her bike parked two blocks away and hiked to the park, reaching the Piedmont entrance a minute after midnight.
While she paced outside the gate, she sent a telepathic call out. Tzader or Quinn. Are you in Atlanta? Helloooo?
Nothing stirred along the sidewalks, human or otherwise.
I’m here, Evalle, Tzader’s voice brushed through her mind. Quinn’ll be back in the city in another hour or two. Where are you?
At Piedmont Park, meeting the new guy. You hear about Storm?
Trey filled me in on the Ngak Stone and Storm, but he didn’t have much on this guy.
She sighed out loud. All I have is what Sen told me when he stuck us together. Storm’s a shaman who can track supernatural activity and tell if someone is lying or not. She hesitated to mention how Storm had influenced her emotions, since Tzader only needed pertinent details at this point. I think Sen brought Storm in intentionally to find proof that I pose a threat to the rest of you so he can lock me up for eternity.
Eve … I know he stays on your ass, but I wouldn’t say he’s trying to get rid of you. VIPER needs your power and skills. You don’t help the situation when you go out of your way to bust on him.
Don’t tell me you’re justifying Sen’s actions?
Not even, but I have to keep peace between him, VIPER and the Beladors for the safety of our tribe. I won’t let Sen get away with abusing his position when it comes to you, but antagonizing him only makes it easier for Sen to justify his actions.
The fact that she breathed antagonized Sen. But she understood what Tzader was saying. I hear ya. Where are you now?
In Decatur. Still trying to find my source on the Noirre. He disappeared, running from something. I’m hoping no one got to him.
She felt Storm’s presence an instant before he stepped into her path. “Thought you weren’t going to make it tonight.”
“I’ve been here,” she told Storm, then silently informed Tzader, New guy’s here. I need to have all my attention available to deal with him. Meet you at my place by daylight.
We’ll be there.
Good. Quinn would be there, too. For some reason, she needed to feel less alone tonight. Though she prided herself on being independent, there were times when even the strongest needed reinforcements.
Storm made no move toward the park as he eyed her with an intentness that unsettled her. “Finish all your errands?”
“For now.” She’d have to come up with a believable reason for taking off to meet Isak by four thirty, which was only a few hours away.
And before that she needed to come up with a reason why her aura wasn’t human. Luckily Isak’s phone had buzzed less than a heartbeat after his declaration that her aura didn’t appear human. She had no idea what it’d been about, but it’d caused him to excuse himself and take off immediately.
She had a couple hours to come up with some way to explain her nonhuman aura.
In the meantime, the safest conversation around her foremost problem—Storm—would be for her to ask him questions. “You find anything on the stone yet?”
“Just got here myself.”
“Where’ve you been?” She inwardly cringed the moment the words were out of her mouth. Why didn’t life have an Undo button? He’d been tracking the Birrn and looking for her ties to it. Which was the last thing she wanted to remind him of and talk about.
His expression gave nothing away. “Running down rabbit trails trying to confirm some leads.”
When he didn’t share anything more like playing chess with Kellman, she decided a change in topic was the safest course of action. “Let’s start walking the park.”
Double cringing at the thought of having him at her back, she angled toward the darker parts of the park, where her vision thrived.
But honestly, her thoughts were not on the stone. They were on her goose getting fricasseed.
How would she know if Storm had found something damning? The quickest way would be to ask, but that was also the fastest way to walk herself into verbal quicksand if he turned the conversation around to what she knew about the demon appearance—especially with his powers. Better to stay with safe subjects. “Anybody have new intel on the stone?” She still couldn’t shake that feeling she’d had about it being found.
Or forget the voice in her head that had warned her.
Had it been real or imagined?
Friend or foe?
Until she knew for sure, she wasn’t putting any stock in the unidentified voice. It could just as easily have been an enemy trying to throw them off the scent and get them out of the vicinity before one of them unearthed it.
Storm cleared his throat as he kept pace with her. “No one’s found anything yet, but the creek running through the park had an unusual overnight eco-change with hyacinths growing like …” He paused, clearly at a loss for an analogy.
“Like Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors?” she supplied.
“I guess so.”
Evalle paused and took in the confusion in his face. Where had Storm been in recent years not to know what she was talking about?
He stepped up beside her. “The city had to send in a crew to clean out the creek before a storm flooded the area. Since the stone has the power to affect its immediate environment, like using fast-growing hyacinths to lift it out of the creek and place it in sight of its next owner, Lucien thinks that’s a good sign it’ll be found in that area.”
Evalle scowled. “But Lucien and Adrianna didn’t see it?”
“They found plenty of rocks that looked like rocks. Nothing that matched the one Lucien saw the night Trey fought the Kujoo.”
“Has Trey taken a look?”
“Yep. He came straight here from the VIPER meeting and arrived as workers were unloading the backhoe. He watched the entire time they dumped rocks and mud on the bank, then stayed until Lucien and Adrianna showed up. Those two spent their shift walking the park, but … nada.”
“I feel for them. It really sucks when you have to look for something. The least the inconsiderate bastard could have done was have a miniature billboard with an arrow pointing down that said Ngak Stone Here.” She couldn’t help the sarcasm, but did everyone think the rock was going to jump into their hands?
Storm laughed, which surprised her. He had a nice laugh, one that warmed the air and brushed across her skin. Under different circumstances she might actually like working with him.
He added, “Lucien had Adrianna walk along the bank by herself hoping the stone would reveal itself to her, but no luck. Apparently she’s not the powerful female it wants.”
Evalle stopped and turned to search his face to see if he considered that as bad an idea as she did.
He lifted his hand in a gesture of dismissal. “I don’t know if I’d have done that, but I wasn’t assigned to work with her.”
Did she hear relief in his voice on that last part? She should leave well enough alone, but the need to know where she stood with everyone, even Storm, gnawed at her. “Can’t be any worse than working with an Alterant, can it?”
“I have no issue with witches. I’ve known some I now call friends and trust to watch my back in any situation, but not a Sterling witch. I told Sen up front that I had limitations when it came to working with any of his agents. I normally work alone.”
He hadn’t really answered her question about being partnered with an Alterant in particular. “So why did you agree to partner with me? Or is the truth that you’re not really here to be a partner?”
And that made her sweat. She plodded along beside him, waiting for a response, but Storm still hadn’t said a word by the time she stepped on the paved road that ran across the upper end of the park. Within three long strides she passed through the streetlights along the drive and returned to the black abyss surrounding the rest of the park.
“Did you hear me, Storm?”
“And?” She stopped walking.
He paused, then turned around slowly, taking a step toward her until they were only inches apart. Close enough to feel his soft breath ripple across her hair and forehead.
He raised his hand and extended a finger to touch her face.
She didn’t want to retreat and give up any ground to him, but neither did she want to allow a second man to eat up so much of her personal space tonight.
Indecision destroyed any chance to react.
His finger touched her hair, then traced around the curve of her ear. “Do you know you smell like mint and flowers?”
Her pulse ticked harder. Did he like the way she smelled?
She could understand the flowers, since she grew a few in her underground home, but she had no idea about the mint. “Not really. What’s the way I smell got to do with answering why you agreed to work with me?”
“I had no idea I’d ever agree to partner with you until I walked into the war room. Trust me, it shocked the hell out of me, too. The mint hit me first, but it was the floral smell that threw me. There you were, all decked out like a tough biker, yet you smelled like a delicate flower. When I sat down by you, those two scents hit me at once and I knew instantly what they meant.”
“What?” That whispered question had slipped past her lips without waiting for permission from her brain.
“Mint is refreshingly different and so strong that it’s overwhelming to many. Flowers may look fragile, and yet some, like the lotus that only thrives in mud, withstand the most brutal of environments to beautify a world that has tried its best to destroy them. They both suit you, and I knew that I could go against my grain and work with someone like you.”
His words seduced her with an ease she found frightening and unsettling. It felt as though he’d peered straight into her soul and laid bare her scars.
Storm thought she was different, fragile and determined.
He was wrong about fragile.
But he’d exposed something she refused to analyze about herself, and the last thing she wanted was for him to think he’d figured her out or had reached her in any way. Not this man who worked as Sen’s eyes and ears.
She stared at him blankly. “Wow, you’re one of those men who can read a bubble gum wrapper and see the decoding of the entire universe.” She leaned in closer, like she was imparting the world’s greatest secret. “But sometimes, it’s just a wrapper. I chew a lot of mint gum and must have brushed up against a flowering bush at some point. Simple explanations that have nothing to do with my personality or humanity … or lack thereof.”
His eyes crinkled, seeing everything she tried to hide. “No, this isn’t something that clings to you. It’s a scent born from who you are.”
She’d forgotten that his finger still rested against her neck until it circled around to toy with a thick lock of her hair. If she pulled away, he’d know how much that tiny connection between them affected her. Be damned if she’d give him even that much.
Her heart thrummed with a feather of excitement that slid along a blade’s edge of fear, but she wouldn’t show a weakness. Not to him or to anyone.
His touch left a path of skin sizzling in its wake. “I agreed to partner with you because you’re not like the others.”
Not like the others.
Which brought her back to reality and the real reason Storm had been teamed up with her—to catch her in a lie.