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Willow walked quickly along Chartres Street.
Her breathing grew shallower, and the space between her shoulder blades prickled.
Don't look back. Keep going.
Jazz blared from bars and clubs. People spilling from doorways onto New Orleans's crowded sidewalks jostled her in the throng. They danced, raised their plastic cups of booze and wiggled the way they never would at home. Colored metallic beads draped necks and more strands were thrown from flower-laden balconies overhead. Laughter and shouting all but drowned out the noise of passing vehicles.
Another French Quarter evening was tuning up.
Her new enemy clawed at the pit of her stomach: panic. Until a few days ago she had been a completely in-charge, take-on-the-world woman. Then she had become convinced she was being followed.
Whenever she left her flat in the Court of Angels behind her family's antiques shop, J. Clive Millet on Royal Street, someone watched her every move. They were waiting for the right moment to grab her—she was certain of it.
Sweat stung her eyes, turned her palms slick, and her heart beat so hard and fast she couldn't swallow.
If she didn't prefer to ignore the paranormal talents she had in common with the rest of the Millet family, she could come right into the open and ask some or at least one of them for advice. But how could she ask Uncle Pascal, her brother, Sykes; her sister Marley; or even one of her other sisters in London if they would help? Despite some recent slips, she continued to insist she was "normal," and so were they.
Willow suspected her family watched her more closely these days, which meant they had figured out that she was stressed. Keeping anything from them for long was impossible. She felt the smallest twinge of guilt for enjoying the comfort that gave her.
Why was she only feeling someone shadowing her rather than actually seeing a face? That was one of her talents—she saw the face of a negative human force, sometimes a long time before meeting the person.
This time she couldn't pick up any image.
Darn it that she was burdened with the Millet mystique. She saw the looks she got. Every New Orleans native knew about the family, which she didn't think helped her business, Mean 'n Green Concierge, all things domestic, nothing too large or too small. She only mentioned her concierge services in ads she placed for personal assistant services.
The sun was lower, a red ball that seemed to pulse in a purpling haze. And there was no air—just tight, wet pressure. Willow had grown up in the city and loved it, but heat did add to the sense of doom she felt.
Even the scent of flowers cascading from the scrollwork of black iron galleries was too sweet. That didn't make any sense. Willow loved to smell scented petunias and jasmine, and the rich floral brew that almost overcame the aroma of hot grit and used booze. Not today.
She cut a left onto St. Louis Street. Usually she rode her green-and-white scooter with its little equipment trailer around town, but since she'd only been going to discuss an order with Billy Baker, the specialty baker she used, she'd decided to walk instead.
Being on the scooter would feel safer—even more so when she got her new helmet with large, rearview mirrors.
Two blocks and she turned right onto Royal Street. A cop listened distractedly to a ranting drunk and his gesticulating buddies. For an instant Willow considered asking to talk to the cop, but what would she say?
She didn't run, but she did speed up.
Her hair lifted a little on one side, as if blown by a breeze, only there wasn't one. Softness brushed her neck, then something tiny and sharp.
A scream erupted; she couldn't stop it. Willow stood still, forced the sound from her lips and then spun around, searching in every direction. Nothing. There was nothing but people, people everywhere. She touched her neck but there was zero to feel.
She got stares, and more space to herself on the sidewalk.
The shop sign, J. Clive Antiques, shone gold against black paint and she did run the final yards until she could get inside. The doorbell jangled, and she jumped, despite expecting the sound. She closed herself inside and bowed her head while she marched purposefully toward French doors leading out into the Court of Angels at the back of the shop. Her flat was there among those belonging to other family members. She wanted to get to her private place and lock herself in.
"There you are, Willow."
Uncle Pascal. Current family head since Willow's father had abdicated his responsibilities—more than twenty years earlier—in favor of running after family secrets in various parts of the world, Uncle Pascal had a penchant for stating the obvious.
"Here I am," Willow said and thought, and here I go, as she carried on past gleaming old furniture, glittering glass and finely glowing paintings, toward her goal: the back door.
"I've been waiting for you," Uncle said, moving into her path. "I say little about you continuing with this silly, mundane business of yours when you should be honing your natural skills, but I do expect you to check in with me more regularly than you do."
"Sorry, but I do make sure you see me in the mornings."
She dodged to one side.
So did Uncle Pascal—the same side. "I want to talk to you about your future," he said.
She looked at him, big, muscular, shaven-headed and handsome…and really irritated right now.
"Futures take care of themselves if we let them," she said, instantly wishing she hadn't said anything at all. "I mean—"
"I know what you mean. You have buried your head in the sand and you continue to pretend you can avoid who and what you are. We all know what you are, Willow. And now you are needed to play an active part in the very serious situation we're all facing in New Orleans."
Very serious situation? Do you know exactly what's been happening to me?
What she must not do was lead the potential witness, her uncle. If he knew something that would impact her, let him spell it out on his own.
"You don't intend to come clean with me, do you?" Uncle Pascal said. "Despite everything, you'll go on pretending everything is what you call, normal."
She raised her chin. "What makes you so sure it's not?"
"We have our ways, and we already know it's not," he said, his brows drawn ominously downward over a pair of the very green eyes common to all Millets, except her brother, Sykes, which was a great concern to some members of the family. "But this delivery proves we aren't the only ones aware of a threat."
He went behind the shiny mahogany counter and hauled an open cardboard box on top.
"Who are we, Uncle?"
He scrubbed at his bald scalp. If he didn't shave it, there would be a thick head of red hair, but for reasons they all tried to ignore, he had first shaved it when he took Antoine's place as head of the Millets. Uncle Pascal didn't want the job, or so he said, and since the red hair was one of the major attributes that qualified him, he chose to get rid of it in defiance.
"Who?" Willow repeated, growing angry at the thought of the others huddling together to discuss her—invading her privacy, as usual. "Have you been in my head again? You know it's against the rules unless you ask permission to enter my mind."
"Rules?" Pascal said, his brows elevated now. "What rules? You don't believe in the Millet rules, or anything about the paranormal talents with which we are all blessed—so why would you care or acknowledge the rules? Or are you finally accepting them?"
She closed her mouth and crossed her arms. There would be no winning an argument with Uncle Pascal.
"Even if we didn't know something unusual is going on with you, this would make sure we suspected as much."
He lifted a crash helmet from the box. White with Mean 'n Green's lime-green insignia that looked a bit like the wings on the Greek Hermes's heels, it was the twin of the one she already used, apart from rather large rearview cycling mirrors mounted on either side.
Willow gaped. "You opened my stuff!"
"It wasn't shut. It was delivered by a messenger from the place where you bought it. I thought it was something for the shop. Aren't these mirrors interesting?"
"For safety," she said, glowering. No way would she admit she wanted eyes in the back of her head these days and mirrors were the next best thing.
"And what about this?" He placed a smaller, oblong box beside the bigger one. "I suppose this is for safety, too."
"That's my business." She scrambled to excuse that second box. "It's something I'm going to give Marley and Gray for their kitchen." Her sister Marley and Gray Fisher were recently married, or Bonded as the Millets preferred to call it. There had also been an actual wedding to please Gray's dad, Gus, who was one of Willow's favorite customers.
"I know what's in this," Uncle said.
She snatched it away and turned it over. It was unopened. "No, you don't. You're trying to trick me into telling you."
"Why do you think I need to open a box to know what's inside?" he said. "Don't you think a Beretta PX4 Storm is a bit overkill for a first handgun?"
Ben Fortune also saw the gun inside the package and couldn't imagine Willow being able to hold the thing steady. This was a very small woman. He knew well that she was strong, but could she hit what she wanted to hit with the weapon?
He saw Willow's back stiffen. That didn't have to be because she had sensed him behind her, standing near a Napoleonic desk he had been examining when she hurried into the shop. But given the long pause after Pascal announced the gun, he didn't think she was reacting to that. She should have responded to her uncle by now.
Odds were that she did sense Ben. His own fault since he should have made sure that was not possible until he wanted it to be. From Pascal's behavior he must have assumed Ben would mask his presence until he was alone with Willow. Pascal had promised to leave them once he'd had his say with his niece.
Too bad one glimpse of her and Ben had forgotten to do what should come naturally—reveal only what he must until he found out exactly how the land lay with the woman formerly pledged to become his lifelong Bonded partner.
That was a pledge he had never given up on, regardless of how Willow thought she could call all the shots. Despite sending him away—for good, she had insisted—she must have expected him back eventually.
Ben smiled slightly. A few experiments, really touching experiments, would prove if they still had what it took to send each other into pain and ecstasy at the same time. They had never actually made love—Willow had seen to that—but the foreplay was explosive, unforgettable. He heated up from the inside out thinking about those incendiary sensations. That electric, erotic pain between two of their kind was considered proof of preordained Bonding with a Millet. Somewhere in the mists of that family's founding, a brilliant elder must have thought such intense feelings would test the loyalty of a male's prospective mate and protect their women's honor.
Apparently, the founder responsible for the concept had not taken into account that irresistible stimulation could become addictive.
There would be a test between Ben and Willow, but he had no doubt the compulsion would be as strong as ever.
He hadn't seen her in two years since she told him they weren't meant for each other. After that she wouldn't see or speak to him.
Ben had left New Orleans, and ran the family business—a very successful club, Fortunes, and other enterprises around the city—from his retreat on the island of Kauai.
"You can see inside closed packages?" Willow said to Pascal.
"That surprises you?"
She muttered something, but she wasn't concentrating on her uncle. Instead Ben could see her struggle not to turn around. Her shoulder blades pressed together, then released, as if she were trying to relax.
Well, if the way he reacted simply to the sight of her was any indication of things to follow, he'd better not miss any vitamins.
"Hey, Willow, remember me?" he asked her through channels he attempted to open between their minds.
He'd lost his marbles, not that she had ever responded to his mind contacts in the past. That would have put the lie to her insistence that she had no paranormal powers.
"What are you doing here?" she responded, gripping the counter with both hands.
His turn to stiffen. The muscles in his back and thighs turned rock hard. Damn, this was great, she'd forgotten to cover up.
"What do you think? You and I have unfinished business. It's been unfinished for too long. And you need me now—you need all of us."
"Sykes got you here, didn't he? He could have talked to me about it first. You two have always shut me out."
"You decided to shut us out, Willow. You and I could always be as close as you wanted to be. The decisions on that were yours, remember?"
"I didn't ask you to come. I—Oh, darn it."
He felt her cut him off. It was gratifying to know he could cause her to break rules she'd made for herself in her teens when Willow had decided she would be "normal."
"You're upset and trying not to need anyone. Don't shut me out." It was worth another try to establish an intimate connection with her.