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He stepped onto the porch and thumbed the doorbell, sending a cheery four-note chime ringing through the interior.
The gleaming black door swung open a moment later, revealing a woman who had to be Kat’s mother.
The skimpy dossier he’d read said Mary Danilo was fifty-five, but she looked considerably older, her face gaunt, hollows under the blue eyes, lines of pain cutting grooves around her mouth. The beige slacks and sweater were too big for her thin body. Her smile looked forced as she opened the door wide and stepped back.
“Come in, come in out of the cold.” She extended a hand as he stepped inside. “I’m Mary Danilo, Kat’s mother.”
“Ridge Champion.” Her fingers felt thin, fragile, and cold in his careful handshake. He wished he could do something about her obvious anxiety.
“May I take your coat?” She gestured toward the mass of heavy black wool that draped his shoulders.
“No, I’m fine.” They needed to get moving.
Mary nodded, and turned to lead the way through the tiled foyer and into the living room. “Kat’ll be down in a second. Last-minute primping. Not that she’s vain, but she likes to look nice, and . . .” As if losing track of where the sentence was going, Mary trailed off. “Grace said . . .” She broke off again and studied him anxiously. Finally she took a deep breath, as if gathering her courage. “Grace said you’re a vampire.”
He met her gaze steadily. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I didn’t want to believe her. It sounds crazy. There’s no such thing. But . . . I couldn’t not believe.”
“No,” Ridge said. “She wouldn’t let you do anything else.”
“Oh.” She twisted her hands together, staring up at him.
“Your daughter will be safe with me,” Ridge told her gently. “Most of what you’ve heard about vampires is myth. Crosses don’t bother us, we don’t drain people’s blood, and we’re not undead. We certainly don’t sleep in coffins. We’re the good guys. And I would never hurt an innocent.”
“Grace told me that. But Kat’s my only child.”
“I know, ma’am. She’ll be safe with me.”
The searching doubt didn’t fade from her eyes, though finally she nodded. “Thank you.” Unfortunately, there wasn’t a hell of a lot more he could say to convince her. Unlike Grace du Lac, Ridge wasn’t a Maja, able to induce belief with a spell.
“Mom?” The voice came from somewhere upstairs, sounding far too sexy for a woman who still lived with her mother at the age of twenty-six. “Zip me up, please?”
“Coming.” Mary shot him a harried, apologetic smile and left the room. Her footsteps sounded on a stairway somewhere out of sight.
Ridge tucked his hands in his overcoat pockets and studied his surroundings. The walls were painted a soft, elegant cream, the couch and chairs were covered in pale gold slipcovers, and a potted palm occupied a woven basket in the corner. There wasn’t so much as a Santa figurine to be seen. And why was that? He frowned slightly.
Idly, Ridge wandered over to the golden marble fireplace, where an eight-by-ten photo occupied the center of a white wooden mantel. From the center of a sterling silver frame the teenaged girl smiled in the kind of stiffly posed shot taken for senior yearbooks. A pretty blonde who looked vaguely like Mary Danilo, she wore a heart-shaped locket around her neck engraved with initials Ridge couldn’t quite make out. Candles stood to either side of the frame as though it were a shrine.
He frowned. Was this Kat?
“Mom, are you sure you’re going to be okay?” The woman’s voice carried clearly to his vampire hearing, surprisingly throaty, flavored with the South, smooth and rich as Kentucky bourbon.
Ridge shifted, uncomfortable at his involuntary eavesdropping.
“I’m fine, Kat.” The answer sounded too tense to be entirely honest.
“I can cancel.”
“No! No, this is too important.”
“Are you sure? I can tell him to forget it.”
“No. I need to know. If you can find out . . . I’d like to know. Maybe . . . I think it would help. Maybe.”
“This’ll work, Mom. I know it will. You saw what Grace could do.”
“But you’ve got to stay safe. Promise me you won’t endanger yourself. I couldn’t stand it if . . .”
“Nothing’s going to happen to me, Mom. I can take care of myself.” Yeah, well, that’s what I’m here to find out, Ridge thought grimly.
High heels clicked on the stairs, followed by the softer pad of rubber soles. Ridge turned to greet his date.
And caught his breath.
Kat Danilo paused in the hall doorway, a long, slim candle of a woman. Cream silk skimmed down a lithe and graceful body, draped seductively over hips, trailed into a short train. The gown was strapless, its cle**age framing round, sun-kissed br**sts. An artful slit permitted glimpses of a gently muscled calf and one spiked gold heel.
Kat advanced to meet him, extending a hand, her smile bright and easy. In contrast to the formality of her gown, her hair was a short, spiky blond ’do that framed delicately angular features with saucy wisps.
“Ridge, this is my daughter, Katherine Danilo,” Mary said with evident pride. “Kat, Ridge Champion.” Some bone-deep instinct had him bowing over those slender fingers. Unlike her mother’s, her hand felt warm and surprisingly strong. Her eyes crinkled at the corners as she smiled, a clear and crystalline blue. He thought he saw a hint of indigo in their depths.
She wore the same gold heart locket as the girl in the picture, but her features were stronger, her gaze years wiser. So who was that in the photo? A sister?
That dossier he’d read was beginning to seem even thinner than he’d thought. Which made him wonder what had been kept from him, and why. The Majae’s Council often played inscrutable games, even with the vampires of Avalon.
“Hello, Ridge.” The girl’s lips looked full and tempting, slicked with bronze gloss. He wanted to taste them. That Kentucky bourbon voice sounded like an invitation to sin.
“It’s my pleasure, Kat.” Or it would be, if he wasn’t careful. How the hell was he supposed to maintain his objectivity with a woman who made his every cell thrum with need?
Unfortunately, he had no choice. There was too much at stake here—starting with Kat Danilo’s life.