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Once the prey, now he was the predator, Damian Marcel thought as he hunted through New Orleans for the woman who'd tried to kill him. His destined mate, the only female he could impregnate. Jamie Walsh. His draicara.
The scent of fresh river water hit like a hard slap. Damian lifted his nose to the wind, and drank in the smell of the Mississippi. His Draicon senses tasted the water, licked it with a slow, lingering caress. At last, home again.
Twin feelings of joy and deep sorrow pierced him. Home no longer. This place wasn't home. Not anymore. It was a damn tomb, sucking him under, making him scream as he tried to claw his way out.
Damian tried to concentrate on the physical terrain, opening himself up to everything, resisting the instinct to shape-shift into his more powerful wolf form. New Orleans was known for the supernatural, but a werewolf prowling through the bustling French Quarter might scare a few tourists. He gave a mirthless smile.
Another, sharper scent pricked. Honeysuckle and warm woman. His nostrils flared, trying to catch the elusive fragrance. His fingers reached up, traced the air as if stroking a female's soft skin.
"Jamie," he murmured. "Jamie, chère. You can run, but you can't hide. I will find you."
He cursed in French as her scent faded. Somewhere in this thicket of narrow alleys, colorful shops and hard-grained nightclubs, she hid from him.
Thrusting his hands into the pockets of his trousers, he ignored the chattering tourists snapping pictures. Across from Jackson Square beneath a shady tree, a thin-shouldered painter dabbled color on a canvas, shifting his weight on a lopsided folding chair. On a park bench, a man in a whiteshirt and faded khaki shorts played mournful notes on a banjo, accompanied by a saxophone player. The music reflected Damian's pensive mood.
New Orleans still struggled to recover after Hurricane Katrina, but the Quarter crawled on, pumping music, booze and flavor into the city. And magick, which had been bred into his blood and bones. Good magick, Draicon magick.
Black magick. Morph magick.
Damian grimaced. Morphs, former Draicon who turned evil by murdering a relative, could shape-shift into any animal. They killed ruthlessly and absorbed the terrified victim's dying energy. Jamie had joined with the Morphs to gain magick, but Damian stripped her of power by casting a binding spell. He'd let her escape him in New Mexico, knowing she needed time alone and he could easily track her down. Little danger existed after he'd killed Kane, the Morph leader, a week ago. Anguish had filled Jamie's voice.
"I'll break your spell, Damian. You'll never have me," she'd vowed.
His chest felt hollow with sharp regret even as his desire for her made him restless. Petite Jamie with her pixieish, heart-shaped face, delicate, translucent skin and huge, expressive gray eyes. Her soft, warm lips pliant beneath the hard press of his own.
The air's mild chill braced him. He strode along the sidewalk, his sharp gaze roving over the crowd. Sunshine beat down on the red-necked tourists, glinted off the faded brass of the player's sax. As he passed the painter, the artist regarded him with a mournful gaze. His words stopped Damian short.
"Have you heard the call of the wolf?"
Startled, Damian whirled. He studied the touch of gray at the man's temples and the faded, almost ragged clothes splattered with splashes of gray and black paint. The hollowed cheeks and the thin blade of a nose looked pale and wan in the brilliant sunlight. Not a very successful artist, for the man looked thin as a ghost.
"A wolf, sir?" Damian asked.
The man turned, his large dark sunglasses hiding his eyes. "The loup garou will never fais do-do in the bayou, mon frère. Have a look. Interesting, non?"
The werewolf will never sleep in the bayou, my brother. Instantly on guard, Damian glanced at the painting. Near a wood cabin, a wolf howled at a full moon. A distant memory nagged at him. He glanced at the man's gaunt face, but couldn't place him. For a moment he felt dim hope. A former member of his old pack? Could one have survived?
"Mon frère? The one who works hard never sleeps. Please, take a look," the man begged.
Hope died. Everyone in his former pack was long dead.
He couldn't afford to indulge in memories or he'd lose his focus. The living Jamie was his priority. The man had heard his accent and tried to strike up a camaraderie just to sell a painting. No Draicon from his pack would ever resort to begging. This man was just another starving artist hawking his wares.
A familiar, haunting smell suddenly drew away Damian's attention. The scent was fresh, straight from his boyhood.
"You must have quite an imagination," Damian murmured. "Excuse me."
He scanned the area. His gaze landed upon a wizened elderly man hauling a large red bucket over to a small wood table. The man set the bucket down. For a minute, something dark flashed in the vendor's rheumy eyes. Then it vanished.
"Crayfish," the hawker yelled. "Fresh crayfish!"
Drawn to the sight, Damian strode toward him.
The slate-gray crayfish wriggled in the bucket, claws snapping in a bid for freedom. Damian's mouth watered. Memories flooded him; memories of wading through the clear creek, picking up the crustaceans for a tasty afternoon snack. Suddenly his stomach grumbled. He needed energy from raw food. Fishing out money from his wallet, he paid the man, who dropped the crayfish into a plastic bag.
"Fresh is best," the vendor advised. "All the flavor's in the shell."
Damian nodded. "I know."
Clutching the bag, he climbed the steps and headed for the Moon Walk, a stretch of pavement bordering the Mississippi. Damian watched a barge slowly labor upriver as he leaned against a tree growing in a square planter. No one was around. He opened the bag, and one after another he devoured the batch. Finally he reached for the last crayfish. A little bigger, it did not writhe and struggle, but remained oddly still. Perhaps it wasn't as fresh.
Damian raised it to his lips, and recoiled. The crayfish opened its mouth and hissed. "Draicon," it whispered.
Alarmed, he dropped the shellfish. A Morph. It began shape-shifting and multiplying even before it fell to the pavement. Damian fisted his hands, waiting to see what form it would take.
An explosion of crayfish followed. Some scrambled away. Lightning-quick reflexes kicked in as Damian pounced, killing them. Damn, where was the host?
Hearing a snicker, he whirled, but not before burning pain lanced his side. Better than his back, where the dagger nearly landed. The Morph rushed by. Human, the form requiring the least energy to maintain.
Damian waved his hands. Daggers appeared in his palms. The creature lunged. Releasing an angry hiss, the Morph lashed at his chest with the knife. He sidestepped, twisted. He calculated, swift on his feet as he judged the creature's abilities. Quick, but he was faster, and more alert.
Then the Morph grinned a sickly, yellow-toothed smile. "Too late, Draicon. Your draicara is dying. Your spell failed to work."
Startled, he drew back. The Morph seized the advantage and swiped at him. Damian recovered as the Morph started to change. Talons grew from its fingers and fangs replaced the yellowed teeth. Exerted from the fight, it began to shift much more slowly than normal.
Not so fast. In another animal form, the Morph would be harder to kill.
He kicked out, knocking the Morph to its knees. Damian dropped his knives as he jumped atop the Morph, then slammed its hand against the pavement, knocking aside its dagger.
As humans, they were easier to hurt. Damian pressed hard against the third vertebra of the back of Morph's neck, exerting enough pressure to cause excruciating pain. Pain used up their precious energy and prevented them from shifting.
"Tell me, you gutless coward. Why didn't my spell work?"
The Morph squealed but said nothing.
More pressure. The creature moaned. "Stop, stop," it pleaded. Spittle ran down the side of its mouth. Damian smiled grimly.
"It slowed the dark magick, not stopped. Her blood thickening." The Morph twisted, trying to break free.
With a low growl, Damian clamped down on the creature and dug his thumb deeper. Moans came from his enemy. "Okay, please, just stop, stop the pain," it begged. "Dark magick inside her, turning her to stone. Living stone, alive but dead."
Shock seized Damian, loosening his hold. The Morph tried to escape the punishing grip. Damian seized its arm and twisted it backward. "Details. Now. Or I'll break every bone in your body and you'll wish you remained my meal," Damian threatened.
The Morph sucked in a breath. "The porphyry spell rarely used. We c-can't absorb the victim's dying energy. Gave her dark magick, and the more magick she used, the f-faster it worked. In weeks, sh-she'll be encased in stone. Dead but a-livedamn, that hurts!"
His mind raced. "You can undo it," he said, twisting harder.
"N-no," the Morph wailed. "Can't no counter spell. Only the ancient Book of Magick."
He sprang up to release his victim, grabbed his daggers. Time to end this.
The Morph recovered and staggered to its feet. Snarling, it sprang forward, features twisted with hatred. No pity. Damian twirled the daggers and threw. They hit home, straight in the creature's heart.
Acid blood spurted. Damian didn't flinch, only watched the Morph collapse. Grimacing, he rolled the body into the Mississippi, watching it disintegrate into gray ash before it slid into the water.
Dragging in a deep breath, Damian muted pain from his injuries. His magick was powerful and the wounds slowly scabbed over. He waved a hand, replacing his ruined Versace shirt, silk trousers and leather loafers with faded jeans, a black T-shirt and scuffed biker boots. Anonymous New Orleans garb.
The Morph's words rang of truth. Damian felt a sickening jolt to his stomach. He'd heard ancient tales of the porphyry spell. Victims exhibited lethargic tendencies at first. They ate anything to give them energy, especially sugar. Just as quickly as they ingested the food, it passed out of their systems. They cried sweet tears, their blood
Their blood turned sluggish, their skin gray, their internal organs eventually to granite. It was an agonizing end.
"Merde," he said softly.
Damian raced back to where he'd bought the crayfish, searching for the vendor. The man had vanished. Hot anger spilled through him. He'd been tricked. The seller must have been a Morph.
Jamie dying. And Morphs openly roaming the city? What the hell was going on?
Were they everywhere, cloaked as humans? Bad news. Even his powerful Draicon senses couldn't detect them like that.
He lifted his nose and inhaled, trying to track the vendor's scent, when a teasing smell drifted toward him, floating on the wind. Honeysuckle and warm female skin. Jamie.
Instinct kicked into high gear. He had to find her. In weeks, she'd be dead. No, worse. Frozen into stone, a living hell.
Whirling, he dragged air into his lungs. Stronger now, there, coming from the south? He shouldered aside a tour group enjoying the banjo player's music.
The lost Book of Magick had a cure. Containing white and dark magick, the ten-thousand-year-old text held ancient secrets. Damian's father had hidden it from the Morphs. Every seventy years one spell must be used to keep the magick active.
If Damian didn't find the book in the next three weeks, the spells would vanish forever.
If he didn't find the book soon, Jamie would suffer an excruciating end.
I promise I will save you, my beloved draicara, even to my last dying breath.
Wolf senses on alert, he followed Jamie's scent.
How much could someone lose? Jamie Walsh wondered.
So many had died before. Her parents. Her brother. Now, her magick.
She felt numb. Dead inside. Gray, her flame extinguished. Her world. Gone.
Jamie leaned against a broken lamppost to catch her breath. A bone-numbing wind penetrated through her thin Textually Active T-shirt. The walk to the grocery store had never tired her. She set down the plastic bag, rubbed her hands against her faded jeans. Lead weights dragged at her feet. No one to lean on. No one to help. She was alone.
A knot squeezed her stomach. Alone was good. She could survive the odds better on her own. She didn't need anyone.
A familiar scent teased her senses. Fresh lake water and warm, sensual spices. The enemy. Damian.
Adrenaline pumped energy into her tired body. Jamie's gaze whipped around. But only tourists wended their way down the street in the bright, sharp afternoon. Wary of exposure, she turned toward home.
Her brother Mark's original French Quarter house near Jackson Square looked innocuous from the outside with its forest-green walls. Jamie unlocked the gate, slipped inside and bolted it. She hurried through the dark corridor, reaching the inner courtyard with a relieved sigh. Dumping the groceries on a wrought-iron table, she sank onto a chair.
Centuries-old walls surrounded her, a safe exposed-brick cocoon. Little could penetrate her refuge, except perhaps Damian. A cold chill snaked down her spine. Draicon were ruthless. What would Damian do if he caught her? Would he exact punishment?
You did try to kill him.
What did he want?
The answer came back in a rush of remembering. Sex. It came back to sex, and mating.
Arousal rasped against fear as she thought of Damian, his large body heavy with muscle. He'd taken her virginity, now he wanted her as his mate. He would hunt her down and never stop until he caught her. Brought her to his bed, pushed his hard, heavy body against her, nudged his hip between her bare thighs and claimed her once more in the most primitive way.
The space between her legs felt tender, wet and ready.
Her brain pushed aside desire and concentrated on self-preservation.
Right now she was a fortress with broken defenses, open to storming by Damian. Damian, who wanted her body, would claim her spirit, as well, drag her back to his dangerous pack of vicious werewolves as his mate. She had no weapon but her wits. A plastic sword against an invading army of sharp, lethal steel.
After trudging upstairs and putting away the groceries, she went to a battered desk cluttered with cables, software, parts and cell phones. Jamie retrieved a new laptop and an aircard and stuffed it into her backpack. She headed for the Petite Maison Voodoo Shop. Mama Renee knew about the secret underworld of magick beings like the Draicon, just like Mark had.
A small brass bell tinkled over the door as Jamie entered. An altar devoted to Marie Laveau sat off to the side, candles burning steadily to honor the long-dead voodoo priestess. Jamie advanced to the back and rapped on the closed door.
Mama Renee opened the door. "Chère," she cried, throwing her arms about Jamie. Jamie hugged her back.
"I brought you a gift. I bought a wireless PC card and put you on my cellular service so you can e-mail your granddaughter. It's time you joined the information age. You're two decades behind."