By Sherrilyn Kenyon
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2002 Sherrilyn Kenyon
All rights reserved.
"I say we should stake him to an anthill and throw little pickles at him."
Amanda Devereaux laughed at Selena's suggestion. Leave it to her big sister to make her laugh, no matter the tragedy. Which was exactly what had her sitting at Selena's tarot card and palm-reading table in Jackson Square on a cold Sunday afternoon, instead of lying in bed with the covers pulled over her head.
Still smiling at the thought of a million ants biting Cliff's pasty, dough-boy body, Amanda glanced around at the tourists who were thronging the New Orleans landmark even on this drab November day.
The smell of warm chicory coffee and beignets floated from the Cafe Du Monde across the street, while cars zoomed past a few feet away. The clouds and the sky were an eerie gray that matched Amanda's dour mood.
Most of the Jackson Square peddlers didn't bother setting up booths during the winter season, but her sister Selena considered her psychic stand as much a New Orleans treasure as the St. Louis Cathedral behind them.
And what a treasure Selena's stand was ... The cheap card table was disguised by a thick purple cloth their mother had sewn with "special" incantations known only to their family.
Madam Selene, the Moon Mistress, as Selena was known, sat behind it wearing a flowing green suede skirt, purple knit sweater, and a large black and silver overcoat.
Her sister's strange outfit was quite a contrast to Amanda's faded jeans, pink cable-knit sweater, and tan ski jacket. But then, Amanda had always preferred to dress in an understated way. Unlike her flamboyant family, she hated to stand out.
She much preferred to blend into the background.
"I'm through with men," Amanda said. "Cliff was the last stop on the bus to nowhere. I'm tired of wasting my time and energy on them. From now on, I'm going to focus all my attention on accounting."
Selena curled her lips in distaste as she shuffled her tarot cards. "Accounting?
Are you sure you're not a changeling?" Amanda gave a halfhearted laugh. "Actually, I'm sure I am a changeling. I just wish my real family would come claim me before it's too late and some of the weirdness rubs off."
Selena laughed at her while she set her tarot cards out in a game of psychic solitaire. "You know what your problem is?"
"I'm too straitlaced and uptight," Amanda said, using the words her mother and eight older sisters most often applied to her.
"Well, yeah, that too. But I'm thinking you need to branch out with your tastes. Stop going after these tie-wearing, ho-hum, cry-to-my-mama-'cause-I-have-no-life geeks. You, my baby sister, need a sexcapade with a man who can make your heart race. I'm talking truly reckless and wild."
"Someone like Bill?" Amanda asked with a smile, thinking of Selena's husband, who was even more straitlaced than Amanda was.
Selena shook her head. "Oh no, that's different. See, I'm the reckless and wild one who saves him from being boring. It's why we're perfect for each other. We balance. You have no balance. You and your boyfriends tip the scale way into Boredom City."
"Hey, I like my men boring. They're reliable, and you don't have to worry about them having major testosterone moments. I'm a beta girl, all the way."
Selena snorted as she played with her cards. "Sounds to me like you need a few therapy sessions with Grace."
Amanda scoffed. "Right, like I need dating advice from a sex therapist who married a Greek sex slave she conjured out of a book. No, thanks."
In spite of her words, Amanda really did like Grace Alexander. Unlike Selena's usual crew of insane friends, Grace had always been grounded, and blessedly normal. "How's she doing, by the way?" "Fine. Niklos started walking two days ago and now he's into everything."
Amanda smiled as she imagined the adorable blond toddler and his twin sister.
She loved it when Grace and Julian let her baby-sit for them. "When's her new baby due?"
"I'll bet they're excited," Amanda said, struck by a tiny stab of jealousy. She'd always wanted a house full of kids, but at twenty-six her prospects appeared bleak. Especially since she couldn't find any man willing to procreate with a woman whose entire family was certifiable.
"You know," Selena said with that speculative look that made Amanda cringe.
"Julian has a brother who was cursed into a book, too. You could try —" "Big no, thanks! Remember, I'm the one who hates all this paranormal junk. I want a nice, normal, human male, not some demon."
"Priapus is a Greek god, not a demon."
"Close enough in my book. Believe me, I had my fill while living at home with the nine of you casting spells and doing all that hocus-pocus. I want normality in my life."
"Normality is boring."
"Why don't you try it before you knock it?" Selena laughed. "One day, little sister, you're going to have to accept the other half of your blood."
Amanda disregarded her words as her thoughts turned back to her ex-fiancé.
She'd really thought Cliff was the one for her. A nice, quiet, average-looking data entry clerk, he had been just her cup of tea.
Until he had met her family.
Ugh! For the last six months, she had put off introducing him to them, knowing what would happen. But he had insisted and last night she had finally caved.
Closing her eyes, Amanda winced at the memory of her twin sister, Tabitha, meeting him at the door all decked out in the Goth clothes she used for stalking the undead. The outfit came complete with a crossbow Tabitha just had to show him, and her entire collection of throwing stars. "This one is special. It can cleave the head off a vampire at three hundred yards."
If that wasn't bad enough, her mother and three of her older sisters had been conjuring a protection spell for Tabitha in the kitchen.
But the absolute worst had come when Cliff had mistakenly drunk from Tabitha's cup, which had been filled with her strength potion of curdled milk, Tabasco sauce, egg yolks, and tea leaves.
He had heaved for an hour.
Afterward, Cliff had driven her home. "I can't marry a woman with a family like that," he'd said as she handed her engagement ring back to him.
"Good God, what if we had kids? Can you imagine what would happen if some of that rubbed off?"
Leaning her head back, Amanda could still kill her family for the embarrassment. Was it too much for them to be normal for one dinner?
Why, oh why, couldn't she have been born to a regular family where no one believed in ghosts, goblins, demons, and witches?
Come to think of it, two of them still believed in Santa Claus!
How could her wonderfully normal father stand all their nonsense? He definitely deserved to be sainted for his patience.
"Hey, guys!" Amanda opened her eyes to see Tabitha approaching. Well now, isn't this just peachy keen? What would happen next? Would a bus run her over?
This day just gets better and better.
She loved her identical twin, but not at this moment. At this moment, she wished very vile things on Tabitha's head. Painful nasty things.
As usual, Tabitha was dressed all in black. Black leather pants, turtleneck, and long black leather coat. Her thick, wavy dark auburn hair was pulled into a long ponytail, and her pale blue eyes glowed. Tabitha's cheeks were flushed and she had a chipper step.
Oh no, she was on a hunt!
Amanda sighed. How on earth could they have come from the same single egg?
Tabitha reached into her coat pocket and pulled out a scrap of paper, then placed it on the table in front of Selena. "I need your expertise. It's Greek, isn't it?"
Without answering the question, Selena set her cards aside, and looked the paper over. She frowned. "Where did you get this?"
"It was on a vampire we dusted last night. What does it say?"
"'The Dark-Hunter is close. Desiderius must prepare.'" Tabitha put her hands in her pockets as she considered the words. "Any idea what that means?"
Selena shrugged as she handed the paper back to Tabitha. "I've never heard of either this Dark-Hunter or Desiderius."
"Eric said 'Dark-Hunter' was a code name for one of us. What do you think?" Tabitha asked.
Amanda had heard enough. Ye gods, how she hated it when they began with the whole vampire-demon-occult garbage. Why couldn't they grow up and live in the regular world?
"Look," Amanda said, rising. "I'll catch you two later."
Tabitha grabbed her hand as she started to walk off. "Hey, you're not still sore about Cliff, are you?"
"Of course I am. I know you did all that on purpose."
Completely unabashed about the fact she'd broken Amanda's engagement, Tabitha released her hand. "We did it for your own good."
"Oh yeah, right." She beamed a false smile. "Thank you so much for watching out for me. Wanna poke my eye out while you're at it, just for fun?"
"C'mon, Mandy," Tabitha said with that cutesy face that made their dad forgive her anything. It didn't do anything to Amanda, except irritate her more. "You might not like what we do, but you do love us. And you can't marry some uptight jerk who can't accept what all of us are."
"Us?" Amanda asked incredulously. "Don't include me in the madness. I'm the one with the recessive normal genes. You guys are the ones —"
Amanda broke off as Tabitha's Goth boyfriend ran up to them. Eric St. James was only an inch taller than the two of them, but since they were five-foot-ten, that wasn't unusual. His short black hair had a purple stripe in it and he wore it spiked.
He would have been very cute if his nose wasn't pierced, and if he would actually find and keep a full-time job.
And lay off the vampire-hunting. Sheez!
"Gary got a lead on that vamp pack," Eric said to Tabitha. "We're going to try and get the vampires before it gets dark. You ready?"
If Amanda rolled her eyes any harder back into her head, she'd go blind from it. "One day, you guys are going to inadvertently kill a human being acting this way. Remember that time you attacked the Anne Rice–Lestat reenactment group in the cemetery?"
Eric smirked at her. "No one was hurt, and the tourists loved it."
Tabitha looked back at Selena. "Can you do some research for me, and see if you can find anything on this Desiderius and Dark-Hunter?"
"C'mon, Tabby, how many times do I have to tell you to lay off it?" Eric said irritably. "The vamps are just playing with us. 'Dark-Hunter' is just a bogeyman term that means nothing."
Selena and Tabitha ignored him.
"Sure," Selena said, "but Gary would probably be your best bet."
Eric let out a disgusted breath. "He said he'd never heard of it, either"—Eric looked at Tabitha heatedly —"which means it's nothing."
Tabitha shrugged his hand off her shoulder, and continued to ignore him. "Since it's written in Greek, I'm betting one of your college professor friends might be more up on it."
Selena nodded. "I'll ask Julian tonight when I go over to Grace's."
"Thanks." Tabitha looked back at Amanda. "Don't worry about Cliff. I know just the guy for you. We met him a couple of weeks ago."
"Oh Lord," Amanda gasped. "No more blind dates from you. I still haven't recovered from the last one and that was four years ago."
Selena laughed. "Was that the alligator wrestler?"
"Yes," Amanda said. "Crocodile Mitch, who tried to feed me to his pet, Big Marthe."
Tabitha snorted. "He did not. He was just trying to show you what he did for a living."
"Tell you what, the day you let Eric hold your head inside a live alligator, then you can make a comment. Until then, being the expert on alligator halitosis, I'll stick with my opinion that Mitch was just looking for a cheap Scooby snack."
Tabitha stuck her tongue out at her before grabbing Eric's hand and dashing down the street with him in tow.
Amanda rubbed her head as she watched the two of them make goo-goo eyes at each other, thus proving that there was someone out there for everyone. No matter how bizarre the person.
Too bad she couldn't find someone for herself.
"I'm going home to sulk."
"Listen," Selena said before she could leave. "Why don't I cancel with Grace tonight and the two of us can go do something? Have a symbolic itty-bitty weenie roast for Cliff?"
Amanda smiled in appreciation of the thought. No wonder she loved her family. In spite of the chaos, they were dear hearts who cared for her. "No, thanks.
I can roast the Vienna sausages on my own. Besides, Tabitha will stroke out and die if you don't ask Julian about her Dark-Hunter."
"Okay, but if you change your mind, let me know. Oh, and while you're home, why not call Tiyana and have her do a penis-shrinking spell on Cliff?"
Amanda laughed. Okay, there were times when having a voodoo high priestess as an older sister came in handy. "Trust me, he can't afford it." She winked at Selena. "Later."
* * *
That evening, Amanda jumped as the phone rang, startling her out of her daydreams. Laying her book aside, she picked the phone up.
It was Tabitha.
"Hey, sis, can you go by my house and let Terminator out?"
Amanda ground her teeth at the familiar request that came at least twice a week. "Oh, come on, Tabby. Why didn't you do it?"
"I didn't know we'd be gone so long. Please. He'll wet on my bed in protest if you don't."
"You know, Tabby, I do have a life."
"Yeah, right, like you're not sitting alone on the sofa, reading Kinley MacGregor's latest romance, and scarfing down chocolate truffles like there's no tomorrow."
Amanda arched her brow as she looked at the multitude of truffle wrappers scattered on the coffee table in front of her, and her copy of Claiming the Highlander on the end table.
Damn, she hated it when her sisters did that.
"C'mon," Tabitha begged. "I promise I'll be nice to your next boyfriend."
Sighing, Amanda knew she couldn't really say no to her sisters. It was her biggest weakness. "It's a good thing you only live down the street or I'd have to kill you over this."
"I know. I love you, too."
Growling low in her throat, Amanda hung up. She cast a wistful look at her book. Doggone it, she was just starting to get into it.
She sighed. Oh well, at least Terminator would be company for a few minutes.
He was one seriously ugly pit bull, but he was currently the only male she could stand.
She grabbed her tan ski jacket off her armchair and exited out the front door.
Tabitha lived two blocks over, and though the night was extremely dark and cold, Amanda didn't feel like driving.
Pulling her gloves on, she headed down the sidewalk, wishing Cliff were here to do this chore. She couldn't count the times she had suckered him into letting Terminator out of Tabitha's house on his way home.
Amanda stumbled over a broken piece of the sidewalk as Cliff crossed her mind for the first time in hours. What really made her feel bad about their breakup was the fact she didn't miss him. Not really, anyway.
She missed having someone to talk to at night. She missed having a TV-watching buddy, but she couldn't honestly say she missed him.
And that was what depressed her most of all.
If not for her whacked-out family, she might have actually married him, and then found out too late that she didn't truly love him.
The thought chilled her more than the cold November winds.
Pushing Cliff out of her thoughts, she focused on her surroundings. At eight-thirty, the neighborhood was amazingly quiet, even for a Sunday night. Cars were parked along the street, and most of the houses were lit up as she walked down the old jagged sidewalk.
Everything was normal, but still it was eerie out. The partial moon hung high above, casting twisted shadows around her. Every now and again, she'd catch the faint sound of laughter or voices on the wind.
This was a perfect night for evil to —
"Get out of my head," she said out loud.
Now Tabitha had her doing it! Jeez!
What next? Would she find herself walking the bayou with her sisters looking for weird voodoo plants and alligators?
Shivering at the thought, she finally reached the creepy old house Tabitha and her roommate rented on the corner. A garish purple color, it was one of the smallest houses on the street. Amanda was amazed no one in the neighborhood complained about the unsightly hue. Of course, Tabby loved it since it made giving directions easy. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Night Pleasures by Sherrilyn Kenyon. Copyright © 2002 Sherrilyn Kenyon. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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