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The wind breathes over the Mississippi River, rippling the water, caressing the crescent of the New Orleans shore. It slips through the black iron gates of Jackson Square, stirring the colorful paintings by local artists carefully hung on the bars, and sweeps through the cobblestone Quarter, an old lover, knowing, familiar.
But this morning something rides the wind, something not gentle at all, knowing, but insidious, invisible and malevolent. The white cats sleeping on the shop steps shrink away from it, fur bristling in their slumber, and the magnolia trees shiver at its touch.
Caitlin MacDonald shuddered awake in the predawn, her heart racing.
Far above her a ceiling fan thrummed, and the stir of air on her flesh made her shiver again as the remnants of her dream rustled in her head insubstan-tially, like leaves in the wind.
Bad wind, she thought. Something bad.
She sat up in bed, pushing away a silky comforter, and reaching for a silver and black kimono that went with her riot of blond hair and silvery eyes.
The feeling of unease was worse as she stood, and her first jolted thoughts were of her sisters.
Fiona. Shauna. Are they all right?
She crossed her bedroom quickly, bare feet slipping across the gleaming old oak floors, and pulled open the French doors to step out onto the balcony.
In the soft humidity of the morning, she looked out over the compound, the enclosed stone-paved garden sheltered by the house, built in three wings around the square. Caitlin's every sense was on alert. The wind was strong, insistent, rustling the magnolia leaves and rippling through the hibiscus vines, splashing water from the center fountain onto the mossy paving stones. She froze as she glimpsed movement beside the brick wall, with its concealed gate out to the city street.
A sleek figure in black sweatshirt hood shadowing its face
The figure put its foot up on the rim of the fountain and bent over a leg, stretching. The hood dropped back, revealing a reddish-blond ponytail.
Caitlin slowly relaxed, recognizing her younger sister Shauna, warming up for her morning run. Caitlin leaned over the balcony railing, and Shauna, with her ever-present animal awareness, looked sharply up. Caitlin waved, and Shauna tossed her ponytail back. "Be careful!" Caitlin called down.
Shauna grinned and flipped a hand, dismissing the warning. Then she yanked open the gate, breaking into a run as soon as she'd shut and locked the iron door.
Caitlin breathed out, irked at Shauna's nonchalance, but somewhat reassured at such a normal reaction. Then a pale shape leapt into her peripheral vision, and she started back in shock.
Fur brushed against her hand, and Caitlin shook her head at her own jumpiness. "Chloe! You scared me," she scolded, reaching out to stroke the cat parading in front of her on the railing of the balconyone of the cream and gold cats that roamed the compound, sisters upon sisters, as possessive of their space as if they'd been the ones who'd lived there for five generations. Which indeed they had, just as had the human MacDonald sisters.
Caitlin picked up the cat and cuddled it to her chest as she felt the wind stir again below them, saw the invisible force gather the branches of the trees into a swirling mass. She frowned again.
Caitlin looked across the garden to the wing of the house directly across from her own, her elder sister's apartments. The balcony was unmistakably Fiona's, overflowing with flowers, which seemed to burst into life when Fiona simply looked at them. The French doors were open a tad, and the sight made Caitlin's heart start beating faster again.
What if someone got in? What if I'm too late? What if this time she really does die because of me?
The wind billowed the filmy curtains that hung behind the French doors, and Caitlin's heart wrenched in sick anxiety.
Then the curtains were brushed aside and Fiona herself stepped out, oversize coffee cup in hand. Caitlin breathed a massive sigh of relief. Fiona stood at the railing for a moment, slender, gorgeous the sunlight turning her long pure blond hair luminous as she looked out on the garden and then spotted Caitlin. Her lovely smile widened, and she raised her coffee cup.
Then the curtains moved behind her, and out stepped a tall, superbly muscled, dark-haired man, wearing tight jeans and nothing else.
He didn't see Caitlin; his eyes were only on Fiona as he drew her into a kiss, openmouthed, hungry, and Caitlin watched in turmoil as her sister melted against him. The man raised his head and pulled Fiona back through the French doors with obvious intent.
Caitlin backed up and slipped through her own French doors, her heart pounding again, but this time in anger.
Damned vampire. How could Fiona be such a fool? Thinking she's in love with thatthat Other.
Caitlin slammed the French doors behind her. All kinds of bad omens this morning. She didn't like it. Not at all.
Now dressed in a purple, green and gold peasant dress and comfortable beaded sandalsthe Quarter's cobblestone sidewalks were hell on a girl's shoesCaitlin moved out through the gate of the compound and into the soft light of day. She felt her unease begin to slip away.
She loved the Vieux Carre, the "old street," in the morning. New Orleans was a city of night owls, so Caitlin had the Quarter practically to herself in the early hours. Her daily ritual was to walk down to Cafe Du Monde, the famous coffee-and-beignets shop, for a tall cup of the smoothest, most fragrant, chicory-laced coffee on the planet, and then out to the Riverwalk to check on her city, test its perimeters, feel for any trouble.
She breathed in as she passed the shops with their treasures behind sparkling plate glass: the gilded clocks, antique mirrors and elegant furniture from another time, the intricate jewelry and the splashy colorful paintings, the enticing clothing; and the smellsfish and sweet liquor and sugar candles, Cajun cooking and coffee.
There was hardly a thing that was normal or modern about it, Caitlin mused as she turned down Pirates' Alley, walking past rustic storefronts on one side, the high iron bars that surrounded the gardens of St. Louis Cathedral on the other. New Orleans was a city out of time, existing in its own parallel universe.
And that made it a perfect settlement for Others.
For centuries, the Wild West, anything-goes atmosphere of New Orleans had made the city a natural draw for supernatural beings. Besides New Orleans' more famous contingent of ghosts and voodoo practitioners, there also existed secret societies of Others: vampires, werewolves and shape-shifters, who had migrated from all over the world to make their home here, living totally under the radar.
The migration had started in the late 1600s and early 1700s, when the new American colonies became an attractive means of escape for Others fleeing the ongoing witch persecutions in Europe. Official church doctrine had made it clear that all shapeshift-ers, werewolves, vampires and otherworldly beings were to be classified as witches, and subject to the same laws of torture and execution.
So the New World meant a new start for thousands of Others. And as America expanded Westward, and new cities sprang up with their own distinct characters, the Others naturally gravitated toward the unique port city of New Orleans, where French law was lax, the supernaturalin the form of voodoowas an underlying thread of the culture, and open-mindedness and indulgence were a cherished part of daily life.
Where better to hide in plain sight than in a city where masks and costumes were the rule rather than the exception, where eccentricity not only thrived but was expected, and the constant influx of tourists made change a constant and too many questions about anyone's past.well, just plain rude.
It had been so for hundreds of years. And for hundreds of years the MacDonald clan had served as Keepers of the city, Keepers of the balance between the human and supernatural worlds. While the Others were perfectly aware of their human counterparts, and some lived fairly integrated lives, holding down human jobs and even owning businesses, few humans knew just how many Others there wereif they had any conception of the Others at all. It was how the Others wanted it; every sane Other was mortally aware of humankind's propensity to hunt down and kill all that it did not understand. Not exactly witches, but far more than ordinarily human, it was the Keepers who made sure, to the best of their abilities, that didn't happen. It was also their job to make sure that any supernatural shenanigans that encroached on human life were handled with utmost discretion, without exposing the existence of the communities. Fiona served as the liaison with the vampires, Caitlin, the shapeshifters, and Shauna, the were-packs. Each sister was marked from birth with the sign of the beings she Kept, and each had developed certain skills to help her manage her special charges. Since their parents' untimely deaths, the three sisters had been in sole charge of Keeping the city.
So it was in her official capacity as a Keeper that Caitlin brooded that morning, brooded as she walked the narrow street, with its closed shop fronts and unique wood-shuttered windows set flush to the sidewalk. Relieved though she was that her sisters were fine, she was still keyed-up from her dream. Caitlin's dreams were often precognitive, or at least hypersensitive. This one had felt like more than a dream; it had felt like danger. And she couldn't afford to screw up again. She had been asleep at the wheel the last time the city had been threatened by a rogue Other, but being in a fog of her own concoction was no excuse.
And her inattention had put Fiona in danger, had nearly killed her. Had nearly killed both of them.
It had been just three months since a series of homicides apparently committed by a rogue vampire had threatened the city, and Fiona, along with homicide detective and vampire Jagger DeFarge, had taken on the brunt of the investigation, the vampire community being Fiona's special purview.
It turned out the killer hadn't been a vampire at all, but a shapeshifter, who had taken on vampire abilities after years of concentrated shifting into vampire form. A pair of such shifters, actually. And shapeshifters were Caitlin's responsibility. Only she had been sodistracted.
She shut her mind down then.
No. I'm not going to think about it. It's never going to happen again.
But even as she thought it, she felt the touch of the wind brushing against her bare legs, slipping through her clothes.
Her heart contracted again. The wind.soft and enticing, the warm breath of the Quarter.
But something was off this morning, like the dream. The wind was not comforting and caressing, that familiar invisible lover. Today there was an edge to it.
Bad wind, Caitlin thought again.
She stopped in front of the paintings hanging on the bars of the fencing around Jackson Square, looking around her. As her eyes swept over them, she recognized paintings from her dream.
And suddenly she had the distinct and unnerving sensation that she was being watched.
From the comfortable invisibility of the alley, he watched the Keeper.
She had been walking for blocks with no awareness of him. A bad signfor her, anyway. For herand for the city.
She was lovely, though, that rippling hair, blonde as moonlight, that ripe body, all that coiled strength and sweetness, pale and voluptuous curves. He felt it stir him, the thought of how it would feel to be inside that lusciousness .
Caitlin felt an intent, as clear as touch on her skin. She whirled and stared across the square at the intersection of streets.
There. A shadow, slipping quickly into Pirates' Alley.
She froze on the cobblestone walkway, her heart in her throat.