We haven't the time on this one, Michael. We have to flush them out fast. Katherine can defend herself well enough, believe me.

He knew she could defend herself. He just didn't like setting anyone up as bait. No matter how carefully you planned, things always went wrong. And more often than not, the bait became the victim. As annoying as Kat could be, he didn't want her dead. Where are we staying in San Francisco?

The three kidnappings happened within a radius of two blocks from each other. The third victim was taken from the Diamond Grand—and that's where you'll be staying.

He frowned. He'd heard the hotel mentioned recently, but he couldn't remember where—or why. Surely they won't hit the same place twice?

Instinct tells me the Diamond Grand has a major part to play in this. But it also tells me it's not the location that matters as much as the people themselves. The victims have three things in common—they all originally came from Boston, they all married extremely wealthy men, and they all attended a fund raising benefit at the Hyatt two and a half weeks ago. Kat attended that benefit, which is why I wanted her along.

Michael raised an eyebrow. Does that mean you think all the women who attended the benefit might be potential victims?

I doubt it, though it's not beyond the realm of possibility. That benefit went badly wrong—six men broke in just before dessert and took everyone's cash and jewelry. It's linked to the kidnappings, I'm sure of that. I'm just not positive how yet.

How did the thieves get past security?

No one knows. They disappeared just as easily, as well.

What about the security tapes? They been checked?Even vampires wrapping themselves in shadows would not escape the camera's eye—simply because no hotel could afford to have foyers or corridors half-lit these days.

Yes. Nothing was found. The people behind the theft or the kidnappings aren't getting into the hotels through any normal means.

If vampires were behind all this, then all it took was one employee under their control to leave open a window, and they were in undetected. Did Kat give you much of a description of the men involved?

She said there were six of them, and that they were all vamps. They wore leathers and motor bike helmets, so it was impossible to see any features. But she did say there was one maker and five Loop members.

Which suggested two things —not only that the head vampire was gay, but that he liked more than one partner. Though five was taking it a bit far. Even Elizabeth at her worst only had four lovers at any one time—and they were never created at the same time. Controlling a fledgling was often difficult. Dealing with a Loop of them —whether that Loop contained three, five or more vampires, would be overwhelming.

Did she sense anything else?

Only that she thinks robbery was not the true motive. The Loop's creator was skimming the minds of the older women there.

That could mean he had a definite target, and the robbery was little more than a means of collecting recent information about them. What's the police thinking on this one?

They're not saying much, officially or otherwise. The Feds have been brought in, of course.

Have there been any other unusual killings or disappearances outside of these three women? If vampires had moved into San Francisco, then surely there'd be more bodies about. Three women weren't likely to contain the hunger of six vampires for very long . A jump in the rate of homeless deaths, perhaps?

Nothing more than what you'd expect. We'll keep checking, though, just in case.

He glanced out the window again and saw the familiar formation of cottonwoods and pines that led into his driveway. He shifted again, half-tempted to just tell the driver to stop here so he could get out and run. The need to hold Nikki, to breathe in the rich scent of her, had become so strong his whole body was beginning to ache. It was only for appearance's sake that he remained in the cab. The driver was a local, and Michael didn't want any gossip started up that could eventually force him to move.

His house came into view—a large, rambling cabin half-hidden by surrounding pines, aspens and cottonwoods. There were no lights visible through any of the windows. He glanced at his watch again and frowned. Nikki was a night owl and rarely went to sleep before midnight. At the very least, he should have seen the soft glow of the television in the front room.

He reached out with his thoughts, but he was met by silence. Either she was asleep, or she wasn't there.

I've done a reading on the case,Seline continued. But I can't seem to get any clear image. All I can feel is hate.

That's a given, considering what they're doing to these women.He paid the cab driver, then grabbed his bag and climbed out. The wind whispered through the trees, and the smell of balsam tainted the night air. He switched to the infrared of his vampire vision and scanned the house. There was no life anywhere inside.

Concern knifed through him. She'd made no mention of going anywhere the last time they'd talked—though the phone connection had been bad and had made it hard to hear what she'd been saying.

Something must have happened. He shouldered his bag and raced up the steps.

Michael, I get the feeling you're not exactly paying attention to what I'm saying.

Sorry. I've just arrived home to find that Nikki's not here.He opened the front door and walked through.

Cinnamon and vanilla lingered in the air, mixed with the stronger scent of pine. The house was still warm, so she hadn't been gone long.

Seline's amusement whisked down the link . Maybe she's teaching you a lesson.

Lesson?He walked into the living room and smiled. A huge Christmas tree dominated one corner of the room, its top branches bending across the ceiling. Ribbons, tinsel and various other bright baubles hung off every branch, glittering faintly in the moonlight streaming in through the windows.

Yes, you know,Seline continued, don't expect her to be the good little wife waiting meekly for you to come home.

She's not my wife.He hesitated, wrapping his fingers around the small package in his pocket— one he'd carried all the way from his farm in Ireland. One he intended to give her on Christmas Eve. And I certainly don't expect her to wait meekly for me to come home.

Seline's mental snort stung his mind. Then what the hell do you expect her to do out there in the sticks? She's a city girl, born and raised, and used to working. With the agency temporarily closed down, you off on cases and refusing her help, it's a wonder she hasn't gone stir crazy.

It was her choice to stay here,he said, more than a little annoyed at the old witch's sarcasm. Damn it, he didn't need his friends taking Nikki's side against him. I even offered to pay for a vacation, if that's what she wanted.

Seline sighed. After three hundred and sixty years of existence, I thought you'd have learned something about the female species.

I have—even the old ones can be damn irritating sometimes.He walked into the kitchen. Santas danced around the edges of his refrigerator door, but none of them held notes. All that was on the table were several unopened envelopes and a half-finished Christmas wreath.

Michael, if you really want this relationship to last long-term, you'd better start thinking a little clearer.

He frowned and headed for the stairs. What do you mean?

She sighed again. Have you even discussed the future with her?

He'd known the old witch long enough to realize she was actually asking if he'd thought about the

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