Read an Excerpt
Cursed To Death
A Crimson Moon Novel
By L.A. Banks
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2009 Leslie Esdaile Banks
All rights reserved.
Sasha stooped down and kept her fingers just above the ashes at her feet. Still warm. The acrid scent of burned Phoenix flesh stung her nose as she surveyed the charred remains.
This was so not how she wanted to return to New Orleans, but she'd do anything to help Sir Rodney the way he'd helped their Wolf Clans. And as tragic as it was, what had happened in Ethan's wine cellar gave her a cover for the nervous energy she'd been feeling ever since the invitation came. Shogun would also be here for the annual Midsummer Night's Ball, and her jumpiness wasn't appreciated by Hunter. It had taken everything within her to hide her excitement, as well as the guilt that went along with it. However, this new situation made all that go away.
Without her having to evade his razor senses, Hunter now assumed her previous nervousness had to do with somehow picking up on what lay at her feet. Which sucked, on a variety of levels.
A twinge of guilt twisted in her side as Sasha looked up at Ethan McGregor. "Who found the body?"
"Sir Rodney and his best man," Ethan McGregor said quietly.
"We're going to need to talk to them more thoroughly," Hunter said in a low rumble. "Where is Sir Rodney?"
"In my office ... after he witnessed this, we necessarily removed our monarch from this ... this awful sight. He is up there with his bodyguard."
Sasha gave Hunter a glance. "Did she say anything about why she was down here? Is there anyone you know of who might have wanted to hurt her?"
The establishment owner shook his head and let out a weary sigh. "I don't know why she came down here, but I do know that she wouldn't hurt a fly, and everyone loved Desi. She was well liked by everyone here at The Fair Lady. Everyone. Desi had been working for me for over ten years ... I've never seen anyone who got on so well with others. That was Desi. She and Penelope, my other Phoenix dancer, came to town together and are from the same rookery. They were like sisters. I don't even know how to begin to tell Penelope."
Sasha listened as she stared at the body, going over each detail of the intact ash, and then an eerie symbol on the victim's body drew her attention. Was it a tattoo or some other strange marking on Desidera's belly that, for some reason, hadn't burned?
Moving carefully so as not to disturb the ashes, Sasha pulled out a small notepad from her jeans' back pocket and extracted the small pen that had been wedged in the spiral at the top of it. She sketched the symbol quickly and then placed her hand inches above the symbol, trying to feel any vibrations that might have been coming off of it. But just as suddenly as she'd reached out to cover it, the symbol collapsed in on itself, making her jerk back her palm.
"Where's Penelope?" Sasha said, glancing up at Ethan.
"Every other night she works at the teahouse. It closed at ten."
"So she's probably home in bed," Sasha said, now glancing at Hunter. She returned her gaze to Ethan. "So nobody called her yet to tell her what happened?"
"No. I wanted to wait until you had a chance to ..." Ethan motioned to where Desidera's body lay on the floor and then brought his fist to his mouth for a moment. "I wanted to see if there was anything I could tell Penelope that would make sense of this."
"You're sure no one else went by there or spoke to her? They were coworkers," Hunter said flatly, crossing his arms over his stone-cut chest. "You said Desidera was well liked, others would know Penelope would be —"
"No. We're the only ones, save the king and his best man, that know. We didn't want to start a panic ... Rumors would fly, and if there is a killer in our midst, we need him to be comfortable, not go into hiding." Ethan said quickly, "I've been sworn by oath before the king not to divulge any of this to a soul ... as it could hamper the investigation. But eventually it will leak out. I must tell Penelope, as well as the rest of the staff here, and Sir Rodney understands the need for this."
"All right," Sasha said. "I understand, but I'd like to talk to Penelope first thing in the morning, if not tonight."
"Of course," Ethan said, nodding.
Sasha let out a hard breath and stood, stretching her cramping legs and back. "Then was she dating anyone? Any current or ex-boyfriends?"
"No ... not really," Ethan replied carefully. "She hadn't been dating anyone for some time ... However, she and Sir Rodney sometimes got together."
Again, Sasha shared a glance with Hunter. That was the last thing she'd expected Ethan to tell her. But now it made sense why the Seelie monarch was so upset.
"Was it serious?" Sasha asked, pushing for details.
"Oh, no," Ethan said quickly, seeming more uncomfortable by the moment. "Desidera knew that she was one of many he cared for. She was very sophisticated about the whole thing, which is probably why Sir Rodney liked her so much."
"So they were hooking up tonight," Hunter said in a deadpan tone.
Ethan shrugged. "I would have to assume so." Ethan's gaze held Sasha's for a moment and then went to Hunter's before seeking a far-off point in the small, dank cellar. "It is my understanding that they were to meet at her apartment after her show. That was all Sir Rodney said on the matter."
"Okay, then ... like I said, we're gonna need a list of people she might have talked to — a friend, coworker, anyone she could have confided in." Sasha looked at Ethan, studying him hard and guessing that Desidera's boss, whom she worked with daily, would probably know more than the kingly lover who only visited her for trysts.
"Penelope would be the best start," Ethan said quickly, blotting the tears from his face. "Our Phoenixes are rare, and she and Penelope are from the same rookery, like I told you. If there was any girl talk or shared secrets, Penelope would have been her most likely confidante."
"Thanks, Ethan," Sasha said absently, returning her gaze to the ashes.
If she didn't catch Penelope at home, she was going to have to go hunt her down at the teahouse and the last place she ever wanted to revisit was the teahouse ... the place where an indiscretion had happened that almost made two alpha wolves go to war over her. Two brothers. It didn't matter that meddling garden Fairies and outraged Pixies had been the culprits; the event was still a sore spot — one that neither she nor Hunter ever discussed. Damn, this was so not how she'd envisioned returning to New Orleans with Hunter for Sir Rodney's annual Fae Midsummer Night's Ball. In her mind's eye she'd envisioned having the time of her life for her twenty-fifth birthday, a milestone that Doc had assured the general would pass without incident.
She caught Hunter's expression with a sidelong glance, but said nothing. The muscle in his jaw pulsed a steady beat. He'd obviously come to the same conclusion about the possibility of having to go to the teahouse. Okay ... so investigating at the tea house was going to be fun. Sasha let out a soft sigh.
"I trust that you understand the delicate nature of this investigation," Ethan said, clasping his hands behind his back, his gaze sweeping between Sasha and Hunter. "I have spoken at length to Sir Rodney, as I am sure you will ... and he'll tell you that this situation must be handled with the utmost discretion ... News of this event, just before the ball, could cause undue panic, rumors ... It is not a shallow matter of a social event coming before the death of a beautiful young woman — the death of anyone would be and is considered tragic, but ..."
"But this has to be handled diplomatically," Hunter said, finishing Ethan's statement. "As clan leaders, we understand. Some things are not meant for public consumption until all the facts can be coherently presented."
Hunter gave Sasha the eye, which she immediately read as his unspoken reference to the teahouse incident.
"Precisely," Ethan said, oblivious to the couple's undercurrent, and then closed his eyes, releasing a long breath and turning away from the charred body at Sasha's feet. "Thank you."
Quiet surrounded them and in those few awkward moments, Sasha's thoughts strayed, wishing that just once there'd be no drama ... that New Orleans would be a vacation destination, instead of a hotbed of paranormal intrigue. That was such an awesome fantasy. A grand fête, a sexy escort — Hunter — an enchanted village, her best friends ... what was not to love? It would have been perfect. But Sir Rodney was a friend. A dear friend. And if something had happened to someone close to him, in Ethan's bar — another dear friend — then it was like somebody messing with her family.
And, yeah, she knew the brass would want to monitor her, so between her and Doc's fabrications and assurances that "going live" in a known paranormal zone was the best test that she wouldn't flip out and turn into a demon-infected werewolf, it had still taken every theatrical ploy she'd known to get them to allow her and her team to return to the Big Easy so soon. Now this?
"She was such a dearheart," Ethan said softly, walking away to catch his weight against the wall. "How could something like this happen in The Fair Lady?"
"We'll solve this," Sasha said, trying to offer some comfort. "You keep your head, man, all right."
Ethan nodded, but the gesture was unsure.
All of this had to be smoothed out and kept below the military radar, while they were probably doing everything in their power to track her.
"You're sure your human superiors will remain uninvolved?" Ethan asked, his question loaded with concern.
"Yeah," Sasha replied, holding his gaze for a moment. No one in the room, except her, had to deal with the human population; she was the only one straddling the fence by dealing with the brass and having a human team of paranormal investigators — which had remained a sore point between her and Hunter from the beginning. "I have it under control," she finally muttered, giving Hunter a quick, sharp glance.
Okay, she admitted it; to make everything work out she'd stretched the truth back at the base. Had to throw the brass a bone. Said there was still some suspicious activity in the area that she and her squad needed to do reconnaissance on. She'd told that whopper well before Sir Rodney had sent a self-destructing Fae missive that he needed help with a delicate job. So, maybe it was a good thing after all, or even a little precognition, that she'd told the brass back at the base that New Orleans was a way station for black market supernatural activities. That was no news flash.
But it had put her in the right place at the right time to be here just before the ball, and just before this tragedy. Maybe she and Hunter could get this problem addressed before her human crew or any of Hunter's men arrived. That was the hopeful thought.
Sasha rubbed the tension from her neck as she tried to glean clues from the site. Since war had already broken out on the streets in the paranormal community, she'd been able to convince her superior officers that it was advisable to keep a Paranormal Containment Unit peacekeeping presence here ... just in case. Especially around Midsummer events. All that was true, just slightly exaggerated, so she thought.
Sheesh. Liar, liar pants on fire — now the BS she'd trumped up to get her and her team a little R&R had come to pass.
Sasha let out a quiet sigh heavily weighted with frustration. Who knew that Sir Rodney's invitation to an over-the-top Fae bash was going to turn out to really be a work detail, a possible murder investigation at that? Clarissa and the guys were gonna have a cow. Hunter was already snarling. For that matter, so was she. Not because of doing a favor for Sir Rodney, he was a doll, but because someone had dared hurt a friend of her friend. It was like going against the pack; whoever did this would pay. Both she and Hunter were so pissed, the hair was standing up on the backs of their necks. She could only hope that was why they were quietly sniping at each other. But right now, none of that mattered. She had to focus.
The only saving grace was the fact that the poor girl had torched in her Phoenix form rather than her human form — which only made it a little less horrible. However, had it been the other way around, Sasha was sure that she might not have been able to look at the remains with investigative dispassion.
"I don't understand," Ethan finally said, beginning to pace. It was clear that the quiet tension was closing in on him and he needed the chatter for comfort, even though she and Hunter needed the quiet to think in order to piece together sketchy clues.
Ethan balled his small chubby fists at his sides while walking to and fro. "She never came back from the flames. The poor girl ... it was awful!" He heaved in a shuddering sob and pressed a fist to his plump mouth. "She was so pretty ... a redheaded beauty, that she was. My best waitress, a fantastic showgirl, my good friend — I just don't understand."
For a moment, Sasha couldn't reply. Ethan was so upset that his Fae glamour was fading right before her. The tips of his ears were becoming more pointed and less human and his eyes had lost their warm brown hue, giving way to the multicolored Elfin irises she'd always found so fascinating. Even his frame was changing to the slighter Elf build, causing his pants and shirt to begin to sag.
"She was a lovely young woman, no one disliked her. Not even the Vampires found fault with her," Ethan said with a thick swallow.
Sasha glanced up at Ethan, the word "Vampires" sticking in her mind and her craw. Hunter caught it, too, but said nothing. She moved toward Ethan with her sketch pad. Maybe he'd be able to tell her about any tattoos or strange body markings.
"Sasha," Hunter called out from deeper in the cellar. "I've got something."
Hustling over to where Hunter stood, Sasha crouched down and sniffed. It was feral and female, but nothing like she'd ever smelled before. "What is that?" she asked frowning. "It smells like Were, but not any kind of wolf, Shadow, or demon." She shook her head. "I've never smelled this kind of Were before."
Hunter's eyes narrowed. "Neither have I." Hunter scented the air again. "And there's something more down here. Blood."
Sasha watched intently as Hunter cocked his head, seeming to listen to the sudden stillness as though he could hear the past. It was always an amazing thing to witness, seeing his wolf senses awaken, seeing Hunter's primal instincts ignite to scour the environment for clues. The Native American warrior battled with the Shadow Wolf Clan warrior just under the surface of Hunter's skin. It was sexy as hell, that pivotal moment when his internal tracker flipped on with a subtle snap.
Sasha kept her eyes on Hunter, watching his line of vision spend itself around the tavern wine cellar. Six-foot-five inches of pure muscle packaged in a 220-pound ebony-hued human frame was ready to slip into a shadow and emerge pure wolf. The hair stood up on the back of his neck and ever so slightly his dark ponytail lengthened.
"What's going on, Sasha?" Ethan said nervously, starting to come closer.
But Sasha held up her hand. "Just give us a moment, Ethan ... keep your scent back and let Hunter work."
After a moment, Hunter returned to her side. "There's blood down here, but every time I think I'm closing in on it, the scent just dances away."
"Does it belong to Desidera or to the Were we're smelling?" Sasha replied with a frown.
Hunter shrugged, now seeming edgy. "I don't know. I can't get a lock on the scent in order to tell."
Excerpted from Cursed To Death by L.A. Banks. Copyright © 2009 Leslie Esdaile Banks. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.