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The Bayou, New Orleans
Exquisite warmth grasped him as he thrust into silken moistness. Gentle and yielding, creamy and sweet, the rhythm surged through him; pleasure rode him, pleasure; arching for it, grasping and gasping. Oranges and roses filled his nostrils. He was dizzy with the scent and drunk on the honey taste of femininity, sweet and delectable
ma vie, ma coeur, ma femme
as it all came roaring back through himlust and desire, wanton appetite and greedfor more, to have it all, to take what he wanted for as long as he wanted even if it killed her
Die giving to me! I will have you until you are nothing!
He heard Isabelle sobbing and felt her weight against him as she collapsed, and then was silent.
Jean-Marc de Devereaux, Guardian of the House of the Shadows, was back.
Not all of me, he thought, flooding with awareness as his eyelids flickered. Deep in the center of his soul, a huge chunk was missing, seized by Le Devourer. He felt it as keenly as if someone had cut out his heart. But the space was not empty. Darknessevilhad flooded in to take its place. He had been changed, tainted, and he knew what Isabelle had tried to do, for him.
"Ah, non," he moaned in a ragged voice, as he gathered up the unconscious woman. She had fainted, her head hanging back over his arm, revealing her long, white neck. She looked exactly like her sister, Lilliane, except that her face was mottled and bruised, and her lips were swollen and bloody. Her riots of black curls were tipped in blood his bloodblack beneath the bone-white bayou moon.
"Why?" hewhispered hoarsely against her temple as he cradled her. For he knew that she had magically halted his soul's total destruction over a thousand miles away, in Haiti. But at a terrible price.
His hands balled into fists and for a sweeping moment, he could hardly contain his anger. It was so overwhelming that he barely stopped himself from throwing Isabelle on the ground and choking her with his bare hands. She was not the one he hated with every fiber of his damaged soul, but the darkness was on him. He could barely control it.
Isabelle's eyelashes fluttered like hummingbirds against the gray circles above her cheekbones. She exhaled and turned her head. Her limpid brown eyes flecked with gold stared into his, and it calmed his fury just enough. He grabbed her hand and held it against his heart.
"How could you do that?" he growled, and, once more, his anger nearly got the best of him. He fought not to grab her shoulders and shake her until her teeth broke. "What were you thinking?"
Her lips moved soundlessly. Her eyes flashed opened and she blinked hard, staring at him in the gauzy moonlight. He tried to read her thoughts and couldn't.
With a shaking hand, she reached for something on the groundit was a white satin robe embroidered with the entwined symbols of their Houses: three flames for hers and a dove for his. As she pulled the robe around her shoulders, she gingerly slid off his body. His penis slipped from inside her moist core of heat and droplets of his own seed dribbled onto his thigh.
Then she looked from his face to the black bayou around them, to the carnage and the blood. Not far from her, a man dressed in a black catsuit and body armor lay facedown in the mud, the back of his head covered by the fallen limb of a cypress tree. He was Malchance, the enemy. His sub-machine gun lay inches away from his limp hand. Another Malchance lay sprawled on his back, the deep gouge in his abdomen serving as evidence of a werewolf attack.
More Malchance casualties lay splayed around them, coated with mud and gore. A few floated facedown in the murky swamp water, not yet eaten by the gators. He wondered why they didn't sink beneath the weight of their armor, and his warrior's mind took note: maybe the Mal-chances had developed some kind of super-lightweight armor. He'd have to look into that later.
Hidden by cypress trees strangled with vines and moss, werewolves howled with grief and fury over their severe losses. Jean-Marc spoke their language, and he knew they were preparing for the second wave of the attack.
Cringing, Isabelle stared down at her own nakedness and back up to his face. Fear rolled off her in waves, and he reflexively wove a calming spell. The scents of oranges and roses billowed in the space between them. He created a sphere of light as well, and it floated above his palm as he approached her.
"It's all right," he whispered, although that was a terrible lie. He had never lied to her before, ever. "Bon, écoutes, listen, we have to get out of here as fast as we can. They're coming after you. We need to move now."
She swallowed hard and took a ragged, deep breath.
"What are you talking about? Who are you?" she asked him.
"Comment?" he asked incredulously.
She looked even more frightened. Her hands shook as she clutched the robe around herself, glancing downward toward her thighs, then pushing to her feet and stumbling backward in the mud, away from him.
"Did you just you raped me who the hell are you?"
Then she screamed as she nearly fell on top of Pat Kittrell, her NYPD detective lover. Pat had tracked her down in a misguided attempt to help; for his trouble he had been severely beaten, and he lay near death.
"Calme-toi. I'll explain. You've had a terrible shock," Jean-Marc said as she stepped around Pat, backing away. He was surprised at her seeming indifference to his grievous condition; she loved Pat.
Almost as much as she loved him.
He walked toward her, aware that his nudity was upsetting her. The darkness in his soul reveled in lust and his body began to respond. Pulling himself back down, he snapped his fingers and dark blue Devereaux body armor appeared over a catsuit. She gaped at him as if she'd never seen magic in her life. He started to pick up Kittrell's Uzi, then realized how that would look to her, so he left it in the mud, and sent more calming energy in her direction, although he felt anything but calm himself.
"You've had a shock, Isabelle," he repeated. "You need to collect yourself. We need to plan."
It was his dusky-hued cousin, Alain, who broke from the tangles of trees and ferns. Alain's white teeth seemed to float in the ebony shadows. "You did it, Isabelle! Ma belle! You are magnificent!" Overjoyed, he flung his arms around Isabelle and kissed her cheek, his dreadlocks flying. She went rigid, her eyes enormous, her mouth an O of utter shock.
"Get away from me!" She angled a karate-style knife-hand strike at Alain's windpipe. Alain's magical aura of deep indigo flared, protecting him as he darted out of her range. She pursued, lunging at him, slipping and sliding in the mud, glancing around as if she were searching for a weapon.
"Touch me again and I'll kill you." It was an empty threat, but Alain was clearly no less stunned. He looked from her to Jean-Marc and back again with palms held up in front of him.
"You're confused. It must be the toll of the spell," he said slowly. "It's me, Alain, remember me? You've done a wonderful thing. You brought him back. Merci, merci bien, Gardienne."
Waves of tranquilizing magic flowed from Alain's palms in Isabelle's direction, and the scent of oranges and roses intensified. Jean-Marc watched her fight it. First she remained stiff, giving her head a shake, then she swayed, enchanted, as her lids grew heavy and her lips parted. Allowing himself to be affected by Alain's spellhe needed soothing; he was a messJean-Marc's aura became visible as welldeep, vibrant blue until streaks in the color shifted and darkeneda blacker shadow, a pall of pure evil.
Alain stared at him in horror, lowering his hands, forgetting what he was doing. "My cousin " he whispered.
"You see it." Jean-Marc held out his hands. The blackness played over his aura, smearing the vibrant Devereaux blue.
"Ah, non. What went wrong?" Alain asked in an agonized voice. "We moved fast to recapture your soul."
Idiot! the darkness inside him growled at Alain. Have you no imagination, no idea what your bungling has done to me?
"Lilliane moved faster, to sacrifice it to her patron," Jean-Marc replied, ignoring the damning voice inside his head. "He's called Le Devourer, and he is an eater of souls. He tore out part of it, and the void filled with his essence. Demonic evil."
"That cannot be," Alain protested, his voice hollow with disbelief. "Such things they don't happen."
"It has happened," Jean-Marc replied, as the horrible presence throbbed and pulsed inside his being. He had been mutilated, violated by Isabelle's own sister.
"Isabelle is half Malchance," Alain said slowly. Perhaps he heard the echo of her name in Jean-Marc's thoughts. "Could it be possible she gave you part of her soul?"
"The Malchances walk with darkness, it is true," Jean-Marc answered. "But this is beyond even them."
Jean-Marc studied Isabelle, whose head bobbed toward her chest, starting at the crown of her head, to her cheeks slashed with blood like war paint, to the cleavage of her breasts and her delicate hands. He moved his hands in a spell of his own, willing her aura to reveal itself. But there was nothing. He tried again. He couldn't believe it. She had no aura. There was no such thing as a Gifted person who didn't have an aura.
"Alors," Alain choked out, his hand covering his mouth. He looked as if he might be sick.
Fresh rage surged through Jean-Marc at his cousin's stupidity and weakness. He raked his hands through the matted curls of his shoulder-length black hair, pulling it away from his left cheek, where it was plastered with blood. He took deep breaths, forcing himself to remain composed.
"Sex magic is the strongest magic we have," he said at last. "She took me when I was mindless and soulless. It's done something to her, too." He bared his teeth at Alain. "How could you tell her to do that?"
"I " Alain swallowed hard and licked his lips, his body language alone betraying the fact that he knew he was at fault. But Jean-Marc could read his emotions, too, and he stank of guilt. "I didn't know "
"Don't lie to me!" Jean-Marc thundered. And a voice inside him whispered insidiously, Kill him.
He ignored it, balling his fists, weaving a spell around the ravages of his soul to keep the voice at bay. Oui, he wanted to kill Alain. He wanted to maim him, torture him, make him beg for death
"Alain," he said evenly, "don't lie to me."
Alain lowered his head in shame and nodded.
"You are not only my cousin, Jean-Marc, you are the leader of my family. How could I stand by and watch you suffer? You are my blood. I would have done anything to bring you back."
"Including risking her," Jean-Marc said.
"Oui," Alain confessed, raising his head. "Including that."
"Bâtard!" Jean-Marc bellowed. Hatred coursed through him like a live wire. He lost what little control he had achieved; he knew he was going to kill Alain here, now. And he was going to enjoy it.
His aura flared around his body like a nuclear detonation, and he hurled a fireball at Alain, who instantly held up his palms and created a protective barrier of shimmering blue. The fireball exploded against it, then disintegrated into sparks that winked out before they touched the ground.
"Jean-Marc, listen to me," Alain said, moving with his hands and body, strengthening the curtain of indigo that hung in the air between him and his cousin. "We'll get rid of the evil in your soul. We'll make you well and whole. But for now, you must fight it."
"I am trying," Jean-Marc said through clenched teeth. Sweat beaded his brow. "Oh, gods, I can hardly bear this."
"Bear it," Alain begged him. "écoutes, I've been on recon. It's as the werewolves say. We've defeated the Malchances that were here in the bayou, but the Malchance troops inside the Flames' headquarters are escaping. They're on their way here, and the House of the Flames are pursuing them. The Flames may be loyal to Isabelle, but then again, since she is half Malchance, they may not be. And if not, there's no telling what they'll do to Isabelle if they capture her."
And to us, Alain could have added, but he and Jean-Marc were soldiers. It went without saying that they stood in harm's way.
Jean-Marc nodded. "Alors, Isabelle," he began, then looked around. She was gone. "Putain de merde, where is she? Isabelle!"
Both men broke into a run. The noise in the bayou ratcheted up, as if sensing that something more had happened, something worse. Nutria screamed from the cypress trees; a gator rushed a floating body and dragged it underwater. Crashing through the undergrowth, werewolves howled.
We have dead, and we will kill our enemies! Stay out of the bayou unless you're one of us!
Jean-Marc howled back, telling them to find Isabelle. Find her, subdue her and get her out of there by any means necessary.
Dizzy and nauseated, she fled as wolf howls chased after her. He had hypnotized her but she'd broken out of it; there was no telling what he'd planned to do to her next. He and that guy with the dreadlocksAlainit was like a horror movie, with men in armor slaughtered all around her, and that man raping her .
Tree branches whipped her face. She fell into the mud on her hands and knees, twisting her ankle, and the pain shot up into her hip socket. Grunting, she got back up, losing the robe she'd covered herself with. Now she was completely naked, lost in a swamp that shook and screamed like a living creature. She didn't know who she was, or where she was, but she knew she had been violated, and she was still in terrible danger.
They called me Isabelle, she thought, but that's wrong. That's not my name. My name is
She couldn't remember. Why couldn't she remember her own name? Trauma. From the rape. And whatever else had happened to her. Those two men what had they been talking about? What had they done to her?