Two weeks later
Dalton felt more at home in the bayou than anywhere else. Moss providing a drapery of darkness, the dank smell of stagnant water, the humidity and the feeling of being closed in all suited his nature. Well-hidden, a place where no one could find him. No one knew about this place, no one would connect him here, so he knew it was safe to bring Isabelle.
The cypress trees bent low in welcome as he paddled the boat through the thick mud of the swamp bottom, keeping watch over the woman who sat ramrod straight on the metal seat in front of him.
For the past two weeks Isabelle had said very little. Like a robot, she'd followed orders, eaten, showered, and slept when he'd told her, but stayed mostly silent. No conversation other than a few verbal affirmations to his questions regarding her comfort level.
He'd hoped to draw her out, to talk to her, to begin the process of healing her. But he'd gotten nothing. Instead, she'd gone further into her shell.
Shock? Maybe. She was probably confused as hell and completely disoriented. He'd circled them around Europe before chartering a plane back to the U.S. When they arrived in New York, he'd bought a car and driven to New Orleans, not using the direct route to do that, either. Instead, he'd gone east and then south. Good thing he had a stash of cash he could utilize to do everything he'd needed to do. No way could he have accessed Realm money to fund this venture.
The only good thing about Isabelle's silence over the past two weeks was the time it had given Dalton to think, to plan. He'd known then where he was going to take her, what he was going to do. Hopefully, it would work.
Of course there were no guarantees, but at least it would give her a chance, which was more than the Realm would have given her.
"We're in the bayou in Louisiana now," he said, getting used to hearing only the sound of his own voice. But he kept talking day after day, hour after hour, hoping it would help Isabelle, that maybe something he said at some point would trigger a response from her. "A place I used to call home."
Isabelle gave a curt nod in reply, remaining, as usual, virtually motionless. Her fingers held tight to the rim of the metal seat on the boat. She stared straight ahead while he paddled, not taking in the view of the swamp at all. For all he knew, she was completely catatonic.
As the boat broke through the low-hanging moss, the house loomed into view, a great sprawling home well hidden from those who didn't know about it.
The Labeau family was his family. Not blood relations, but they knew him better than anyone. He had no blood family. He'd come from nowhere. He didn't, in fact, exist. No one knew that except for the Labeaus. And now the only one still living who knew his secret was Georgie, and at—how old was Georgie now, forty-five, fifty or so?—hadn't even been born when he'd first met her family. But when he'd contacted the Labeaus a week ago, Georgie had answered. She'd known right away who he was, had told Dalton this place would always be his home.
As always, the Labeaus could be counted on. He had to come back here. There was something he needed from this place and this family beyond the shelter it would provide Isabelle and him.
He drew the boat up to the dock. Several young children rushed to greet them, smiling and waving, their bare feet slapping hard on the wooden dock as they ran and smiled. They moored the boat while he helped Isabelle out.
"Miss Georgie says you should go right to the house."
Dalton grinned at a young girl of about eight with dark hair and serious chocolate brown eyes. "I'll do that. Thank you."
"She sick?" the little girl asked, inclining her head to Isabelle.
He noted the purplish cast under Isabelle's eyes, the drawn look to her face. She'd lost weight over the past couple weeks because she hadn't eaten much.
"No, she's just tired." Dalton slid his arm around Isabelle's waist and led her up the path toward the house.
He liked the old house. Reminiscent of a plantation home, the house was rectangular, two stories with a wraparound porch. It always looked like it had been freshly painted, white with green shutters at each of the windows, cheerful flowers climbing up out of pots sitting on the porch. The house was a sprawling mansion, at least what he would call a mansion, though there was nothing fancy about the place. But it was huge, it was clean, and to Dalton, it was the only home he had. More important, as soon as he took the first of the five stairs heading up to the porch, the tension within him dissolved.
He felt safe here, and Dalton rarely felt safe.
The screen door opened and a woman stepped out, wiping her hands on a kitchen towel. Her skin was flawless, the color of cream-flavored coffee. Her hair was cut short and her full lips lifted in a smile as she waited for them with her hands on her hips, her colorful ankle-length skirt swishing around her as she shifted back and forth. She looked a lot like her great-grandmother, that same kind of strange magic radiating in waves off her. It had been years since he'd been here, but he knew her. And she knew him.
She held out her arms and he walked into them. She hugged him, and despite how much older he was than her, he was the one who drew comfort from the embrace. He pulled back and turned. "This is Isabelle."
"Bienvenue Æ notre maison, Isabelle. I'm Georgianne. Welcome to the Labeau home. We're so happy to have you here."
"Everyone calls me Georgie, and if you're a friend of Dalton's then you're practically family."
"Merci, Georgie," Isabelle said, dropping her chin to her chest. "Je suis desolee."
"Now don't you go apologizin'," Georgie said. "There's nothing to be sorry for. We love having visitors here." Georgie slung her arm around Isabelle. "Come on, let's go inside for something cool to drink. It's blisterin' hot out here today."
Isabelle nodded and went in with Georgie. Dalton noted Isabelle was having trouble making eye contact, as if she was uncomfortable.
Maybe she was just tired. But on a good note, she'd spoken more words to Georgie in those few seconds than she had to him in weeks.
The kitchen was exactly as he remembered. Linoleum floors, still scrubbed to a gleaming shine every day, no doubt. The one thing he remembered most about Celine, Georgie's great-grandmother, was the woman always scrubbing something. She kept a seriously clean house and God help you if you tracked mud into her kitchen.
Gingham yellow-and-white curtains covered each window, open today to let what little breeze there was blow through the house. Georgie motioned to the old wooden table where Dalton had eaten many a meal. It could seat twenty, with wide benches on either side and chairs on each end that reminded him of thrones. It was a lot more scarred now than it had been on his last visit, but still sturdy as a hundred-year-old oak.
He climbed over the bench and took a seat next to Isabelle.
"Lemonade," Georgie said, setting glasses down and filling them with ice before pouring lemonade from the pitcher. "Loaded with sugar, too, because girl, you look like you need some nourishment."
"I haven't been very hungry," Isabelle said, her head bent down and her eyes averted as she grasped the glass and brought it to her lips. She sipped, then her lips curled in a hint of a smile. "Bien, merci. This is very good."
"Drink it all. You look like you're about to fall down."
Isabelle exhaled. "I feel that way."
"Then you should eat. There's soup on the stove." Georgie stood.
Isabelle raised her head enough to peer at Georgie through her half-lidded gaze. "Please, don't trouble yourself."
"Chere, it's no trouble. What's trouble is you passing out on my kitchen floor." She scooped seafood stew into two bowls and laid it in front of them.
Dalton inhaled, the memories taking him back. "Your great-grandma used to make this soup."
"Yeah," Georgie said with a wide smile. "She and my mama taught me how to cook."
"I was sorry to hear of your grandmother's passing," Dalton said. He'd known Georgie's grandmother well. Marie had a twinkle in her eye that had always made him laugh.
Georgie nodded. "Merci. She lived a happy life. We were blessed to have her as long as we did."
"I'm sorry, too," Isabelle said in between spoonfuls of soup.
Isabelle was eating. That was good. He hadn't been able to coax her into much more than a few bitefuls at each meal.
"Grand-mere was ready. It was her time and she was in pain. Though we tried, there was nothing we could do to help her. Even magic can't fight disease."
Isabelle paused, looked at Dalton, then at Georgie. "Magic?"
Georgie slanted a look at Dalton, then smiled at Isabelle. "Voodoo."
Now Isabelle's head raised fully and her eyes widened. "You practice it? Seriously?"
"Of course. It's part of our lives, our culture. It's who we are and as natural as breathing."
"Georgie comes from a long line of voodoo priestesses," Dalton explained.
Isabelle shuddered, laid the spoon in the bowl and placed her hands in her lap. "Sounds like the dark arts."
Dalton caught the fear in her eyes. He knew she'd had her fill of darkness. Feared it. He couldn't blame her for that.
Georgie rose, moved around the table, and sat on the bench next to Isabelle. She grasped Isabelle's hands in hers. "Oh, no. You have it wrong. Voodoo is white magic, chere. What you see in movies, read about, they have it backward. This is holy magic, as pure as Christianity. Our practice parallels the Christian rites in many ways."
"I don't know anything about voodoo. I've only heard . . ."
Georgie frowned. "You heard wrong. There is no evil practiced here. No blackness allowed. Only white light, clean. You have nothing to fear here. You are protected."
Isabelle turned to Dalton, who nodded but didn't say anything further.
Georgie rose and went to the sink. "You'll stay down at one of the cabins while you're here. It will give you some privacy to do what you need to do."
"What you need to do?" Isabelle asked. "And what's that?"
Isabelle's gaze was focused on Georgie's back, but Dalton knew she asked the question of him.
Georgie turned to face her.
"To remove the demon inside you."
Isabelle's heart slammed hard and all she heard was her own blood pounding in her ears. Had Dalton told Georgie everything about her? She'd spent the past two weeks in a fog, trying her best to fold inside herself, to keep from remembering everything that happened that night in Sicily.
All she wanted to do was forget.
But it kept coming back to her in bits and pieces, especially when she slept. Nightmares, mostly, of that night in Italy. What she'd done. What she'd become. The vivid images of her hands like claws, digging into her sister's throat, were impossible to escape. And the evil that had wrapped itself around her, crawled inside her, become part of her . . . how much she'd enjoyed the power . . .
Even now, she still felt that evil, trying to claw its way to the surface. It had taken every ounce of strength she possessed to push it deep inside. But Isabelle knew it remained, ever ready to burst free.
Had that really been her? She found it hard to believe, and yet she knew it had happened, could happen again.
Those men dressed all in black, surrounding her, telling her she was one of them. She hadn't even fought them. Where was her grit, her determination to remain human and pure despite their soul-tainting efforts? Oh, no. Instead, she'd embraced their evil like a warm, welcoming blanket. She'd reveled in it, been consumed by it.
And she could still feel it. How easily evil had taken her over. She was so weak. What did that say about her soul?
That she was damned. That's what it said.
So she tried not to sleep much, just lay awake at night staring into the darkness, certain they were going to come for her, afraid to turn to Dalton for comfort.
She had no one to lean on anymore. She'd tried to kill Angelique. Her sister no doubt hated her, the Realm of Light probably wanted her dead, and Dalton . . .
She had no idea why Dalton had brought her here.
To save her, Georgie had said. Why? Why would he even want to? They barely knew each other. They'd shared one night in Italy, a wild, passionate night on the yacht, but then he'd betrayed her by stealing her mother's diary. He'd used her to find out her secrets. She shouldn't trust him.
Then again, he shouldn't trust her, either. Not after discovering what she was. She could have killed him that night.
She still might. She was unstable; there was a demon lurking around inside her, ready to pounce. Who knew what could happen?
She shivered, wrapped her arms around herself, dread and confusion like a spiderweb, spinning thicker and thicker and clouding her mind. She had no idea what to do.
"You cold, chore?"
She lifted her head, glanced at Georgie. She shook her head. "I'm fine."
"I know you're confused, maybe a little angry. You don't know why you're here. You're probably scared. Just relax and make yourself at home. Nothing is going to happen here to hurt you."
Isabelle didn't want anything to happen. She wanted to go back to a year ago when she was blissfully ignorant about who and what she was, before she'd found her mother's diary that revealed everything. She wanted to hunt for treasure, live the life she'd always wanted without any knowledge of demons.
"I'd like to forget who I am."
Georgie graced her with a bright smile. "You can never go back, Isabelle. Only forward."
She inhaled, shuddered it out. The future seemed dismal, a dark and frightening place with no hope.
"It's been a long day," Dalton said. "I think we need to get to our cabin and unpack, let Isabelle rest."
Georgie nodded. "You know the way to the cabin. I'll let you take care of it. I have things to do."
Georgie bent in front of Isabelle and took her hands. A surge of warm energy zipped through her. Isabelle almost jerked her fingers away, but Georgie's grip was firm, holding her in place.
"Don't be afraid of me, of anything that happens here, Isabelle. You are protected."
She smoothed her hands over the top of Isabelle's, then straightened, moving down the long hallway. Dalton went with Georgie, his head bent toward the petite woman's as they whispered together at the doorway. He returned within a few seconds.
"You ready to get unpacked?" he asked.
"I guess." It wasn't like she had much choice. She no longer had freedom to come and go as she pleased. Where would she go if she did?
From the Paperback edition.