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Isis Montgomery often cut through the deserted alley on her way to the ferry, and the sudden contrast between raucous New Orleans French Quarter streets and hushed isolation always surprised her. Today, however, the silence seemed especially thick. Only her heels clicking on the rough bricks disturbed the unnatural quiet.
Shadows concealed the edges of the narrow alley, but she kept her sunglasses on in deference to the still-bright early evening sun. A gust of March breeze sent a shiver across her shoulders, and behind her a shutter banged in sharp retort. Isis started, then shook her head at her stab of nerves. Her brothers' endless warnings must be getting to her.
Dingy windows and locked doors hinted at life behind the walls, but in the daylight nothing stirred. Isis was halfway through her shortcut when a brilliant light flashed behind one window, then went off. What was that? Intrigued, Isis drew closer.
A hand-lettered sign was taped to the grimy window, but otherwise nothing distinguished the doorway from the other brick-fronted stores. Slowly Isis read aloud, tracing the letters with her finger: MADAME PARIS. CURIOSITIES, DREAMS, AND MAGIC.
It had been weeks since she'd been this way, so she'd never seen this place, but she had heard rumors about it, disturbing rumors. Isis peered in, shielding her face with one hand, but saw nothing. No merchandise was displayed in the windows.
The shop did not look like a place of magic.
A faint draft of air from the store? whispered across her face, carrying with it a whiff of perfume, exotic and alluring. Isis froze, wisps of dream memoriesvibrating across her skin and tickling her nose.
The perfume of her dreams?
The scent she had sought for months?
Too fleeting to tell. A frisson of excitement, tempered by wariness, skittered up her spine. "Curiosities, dreams, and magic," Isis repeated. The perfume she sought was magic to her. Dangerously alluring, sultry and intriguing magic.
So, why the strange reluctance to go in? Because she wanted nothing to do with magic, and the prickling at the back of her neck reinforced her wariness. Isis drummed her purple-tipped nails against her thigh for a moment, throwing off the uneasy sensation. You didn't accomplish anything in this life without taking a few chances.
Besides, she needed that perfume.
She finger-combed her short, dark hair, settled her sunglasses firmly against her nose, and then pushed open the door. Instead of the common bell or rattling veil of beads, loud hisses greeted her. Two bearded dragons flat, sandy- colored desert lizards lurked in metal wire cages, one on either side of the door.
"Hello, boys," Isis greeted them, then strolled around the cluttered, narrow room. In the silence, her heels tapped a staccato beat on the uneven wood floor.
The shop was no more imposing on the interior. It smelled of ylang-ylang and dust, and the dim light forced her to remove her sunglasses. A crystal ball how utterly predictable rested atop a round table covered in shabby velvet. Tattered books were heaped on shelves and counters, in no discernable order. Magic paraphernalia, most of it the gimmickry of the stage magician, littered the store.
She picked up a deck of cards, shuffled them, then held them out in a fan. "Pick a card," she said to the silent dragons. "Ace of spades?" Isis reached into the center of the marked deck and pulled out the ace of spades, then tossed the deck on the table. "Still got the old touch. Aunt Tildy would be proud."
Her great-aunt Tildy made a living debunking charlatan magicians and psychics. Oh, not the ones who entertained, but the ones who preyed on the hopes and fears and pocketbooks of the innocent. In the past, Isis had helped her, and had picked up a few tricks in the process.
Only difference was, Aunt Tildy still believed magic truly existed, and that someday she'd find it. Three years ago, Isis had given up the search for true magic, and this place didn't look like a good candidate to change her mind.
So, where was the proprietor? Isis crossed her arms and tapped her heeled foot. If it wasn't for that faint, remembered aroma, she'd leave right now.
Her foot stilled as she spied a crystal flacon resting atop a black mirror. It was... not beautiful, but intriguing, with unevenly curved sides and a blood-red stopper. Fascinated, she moved closer, the muscles in her neck tightening. Even the coating of dust couldn't hide the strange scarlet marks etched into the surface.
She picked up the flacon, uncorked it, then dabbed a tiny amount on her wrist. The true test of a perfume was how it worked on the skin, not how it rose from the bottle. She waited a moment, then sniffed.
Floral, but not sweet, with the green aromas of early spring. A head note of orange blossom was her first impression, but other, unrecognizable, spices brought warmth to her skin. The exotic scent was as complex and unique as the bottle that held it, as mysterious and alluring as her passionate dream. Unknown, yet... so familiar.
A memory long forgotten, drawn from the recesses of her mind by the primal powers of scent, flashed into Isis. This perfume she had smelled it once before.
She'd been young, not yet in kindergarten, but even then the scent had drawn her when she discovered it among the perfumes cluttered on her grandmother's dressing table. Magic, her grandmother had called it, a legacy of the past. When her grandmother died a month later, Isis had searched for the irresistible perfume but had not found it.
Hope uncurled its first dormant leaf. Could this be the perfume of her dreams, the one she had tried for months to capture? Was this the scent she needed for Dream Scents, her aromatherapy and perfume shop?
After so long, Isis tempered her excitement. She'd been close before and been disappointed.
While she waited for the perfume to warm, she looked around more slowly. "Hello?" she called. "Anybody here?"
A repeated hiss was her only answer. Isis ambled over to the nearest bearded dragon, who flicked his tongue at her. She crouched down until she was at eye level with the beast, then mimicked the animal's hiss. It blinked and moved closer.
A sudden gust of wind shoved her against the cage. She grabbed the wires to keep herself from falling. The lizard's tongue flicked out, touching her hand. Two hot, painful pricks, like the touch of electrified wire, coursed through her palm.
"Ouch!" Isis shook her hand.
"My pet is territorial," said a female voice from behind her.
"Your pet is also very strange. Bearded dragons don't have acid tongues," Isis answered, pushing to her feet.
"They are a rare breed." Hands folded in front of her, the proprietress advanced. She wore a long dress of spiderweb gray and dangling earrings made of turquoise. A turquoise necklace hung between her breasts, which were amply displayed by a low-cut neckline.
Heavy purple eye shadow does nothing for her, not with that silver hair, thought Isis idly. She'd do better in Cobalt Smoke.
"Are you Madame Paris?"
"That name will do." The woman tilted her head in study. "What is yours?"
"People call me Ice."
For some reason, that answer seemed to please Madame Paris. "Ice quenches fire," she murmured.