The end of the world was a strange motivator, providing the kind of impetus that could make a man do things he'd sworn he would never be caught doing. Like coming back to places he'd vowed he'd never return to
Or seeking out people and memories he knew were best left to the past. The problem, of course, was that the past had ways of sneaking up on a guy.
In cases like this, it could even make you feel as if you were making the biggest mistake of your life.
As Noah Winston walked inside Broussard's, the rickety bayou bar where he'd worked as a teenager, that's exactly how he felt. Like a man walking the plank, heading toward his doom. And in Noah's case, that doom came in the form of a woman. A woman who just so happened to be from one of the craziest families the state of Louisiana had ever known, and who, incidentally, also happened to be a toopowerful, toostubborn, painintheass caste of witch.
His best chance of surviving this visit in one piece was to get the information he needed, and then get the hell out of Dodge before that particular hellion ever set eyes on him. The faster, the better. If he were lucky, she'd never even know he'd been there.
Despite that comforting thought, a clammy, uneasy feeling crept over his skin as he made his way into the dim interior of the bar, the door sliding shut behind him. A bead of sweat snaked slowly down his spine while chills spread over his arms, the whirring blades of the ceiling fan swaying precariously over his head doing little to battle the oppressive heat. At one o'clock in the afternoon, the business was deserted but for the two beer drinkers playing pool near the back wall and the towering brute lurking behind the till, polishing shot glasses that looked absurdly small in his beefy hands. The bartender eyed him with a look of bored indifference, until he caught sight of his pale blue eyes. Noah took a quick sniff, his heightened sense of smell alerting him to the fact that the guy was no more "normal" than he was. A grizzlyshifter, if he was reading the scent right.
Noah might have been more or less human, but that "less" part of the equation was becoming more evident with each day that went by. With every passing hour, his senses were becoming sharper, allowing him to interpret the world around him in a way that was more monster than man. His human self, it seemed, had become another casualty of the war that he and his friends were currently waging against an ancient evil named the Casus. Fortunately, Noah and his buddies, a group of shapeshifters and vampires called the Watchmen, had finally managed to defeat the majority of the monsters nearly two months ago back in May. But the Casus leader, Anthony Calder, had mysteriously disappeared at the height of the battle, before Noah could kill him. They didn't know where Calder was, but Noah had a good idea of who he was with. He also knew the bastard wasn't going to stop until he got what he wanted, and Noah was willing to die to keep him from getting it.
But that was going to be a battle for another day. For the moment, he was after the solution to a different problem. One that was less personal, but no less important. And one he knew he could help with, if he managed to stay a step ahead of Calder.
As if aggravated by the thought of that particular Casus, his arm ached with a renewed wave of pain, the scar left from Calder's fangs throbbing with a dull pulse. Though the injuries he'd sustained on the day Calder had been snatched from his grasp were nearly healed, Noah still didn't feel
right. Too many changes were taking place inside him, his system in a constant state of flux that often left him jittery and tense. Or maybe that was just his current bitter outlook on life. Either way, he was a guy who others went out of their way to avoid these days. One who no longer even tried to hide the raw, constant burn of worry weighing heavily in his gut.
Heading toward the bar, Noah kept his gaze locked on the giant behind the till. The guy set down another shot glass, slapped the dish towel over his shoulder, then braced his beefy hands against the scarred but gleaming wooden counter. Thick, graying brows drew together in a deep scowl over his suspicious gaze. "You thirsty, Casus? We don't welcome your kind here, but you can take something to go."
"I'm not a Casus." Noah fought to keep his tone easy, knowing it wasn't going to do him any good if he started shit with the shapeshifter.
"And I don't want any trouble. I just need some information."
"Not Casus?" The guy snorted. "You looked at your eyes in a mirror lately, son?"
Noah ignored the question. Thanks to his maternal bloodline, he had the same iceblue eyes as the Casus, but he wasn't one of them. Not yet, at any rate. "I'm looking for Jessie Broussard," he said, making an effort to sound patient. "Do you know where I can find her?"
The scowl deepened. "What's yer business with Jessie?"
"I need her help."
"S'that right?" the guy drawled.
"I'm willing to pay for the information." He reached into his back pocket, pulled out a wad of folded bills and slapped them on the counter. The scent of the money filled the air, sharp in his nose, but the shifter didn't so much as blink.
Leaning closer, the guy eyed Noah with a dark, steady stare. "Do I look like the sort to be bribed?"
"You don't want the money, fine." His voice was tight, his irritation rising like the heat spilling in off the murky waters of the bayou that lurked just beyond the bar's entrance. "But I'm not leaving until I've spoken with Jessie. It's a matter of life and death."
"For who? You?"
Noah clenched his jaw as he pocketed the money. "Let's just say that I'm here on behalf of the Watchmen."
A gritty laugh rumbled from the giant's chest. "Those crazyass shifters? Hell, what makes ya think I care what they're up to?"
"Because a helluva lot of people are going to die if you don't."
The seconds stretched out, marked only by the whirring of the ceiling fan and the distant sounds of the pool game, while he stared the older man down.
Finally, the shifter muttered, "You can find her out back. Last cabin on the left."
"Hell, don't thank me yet." Laugh lines crinkled at the corners of the bartender's eyes as he smiled. "Knowing Jessie, she's liable to shoot ya before you get yer first word out."
"Tell me something I don't know," he grated under his breath, turning and heading for the door. It was common knowledge that the Winstons and Broussards had never gotten along. The human residents in Sacred believed the decadesold disagreement had been spawned by a particular piece of land that bordered both their properties. But those locals who were a part of the ancient clansnonhuman races who lived hidden among the humansknew the truth.
That truth being that Chastain witches generally disliked any species that fed on blood, such as the Deschanel, or vampires. And the only species they hated more than the vamps were the Casus.
The Broussards didn't care that Noah's family was human. Nor did they care that the only reason the Winstons had Casus blood running through their veins was because one of his ancestors had been unfortunate enough to be raped by one of the monsters a millennia ago. They distrusted the Winstons' iceblue eyes, and they feared the day when the Casus would escape their immortal prison called Meridian and return to this world, using families like Noah's as their human hosts. It wasn't a fair prejudice, but was one that had been bred into Jessie's grandparents, her parents and into Jessie herself.
About the time that Noah turned sixteen, the local sheriff had had enough of their constant bickering and proclaimed it was time the two families learned to get along. Jessie was ordered to give Noah a parttime job at the bar, which she'd inherited from her father, and her nephew Harris had been ordered to help out at Noah's grandfather's garage on the weekends. Though it took a few months, and a couple of brawls, he and Harris had surprised everyone by breaking the legacy of distrust and becoming friends. The hostilities between the families had cooled for a timebut Jessie had still scared the crap out of him.
Heading around the side of the building, toward the cabins that had been built in the woods behind the bar more than a hundred years ago, Noah figured the once ramshackle cabins must have been renovated before Jessie moved into one of them. The lady might have been one egg short of a dozen, even for a Chastain witch, but he remembered Jessie as a silverhaired woman who enjoyed things exceptionally neat and clean.
Wondering just how loudly she was going to screech when she set eyes on him today, Noah set off down the winding path that wove through the lush woods. He told himself he wasn't afraid of Jessie Broussard, but an uneasy feeling still burned in his gut like bad whiskey. His instincts urged him to turn and get the hell out of there, but he couldn't do it. Desperate times called for desperate measures, and he'd already wasted too much damn time as it was. He'd known for months now that this visit needed to happen, and yet, he'd put it off. Dragged his feet like an old woman. Yeah, he'd sent letters, but he hadn't really expected the Broussards to respond to them. And he'd known that trying to email or call would be pointless. The Broussards had always trusted modern contraptions about as much as they'd trust a cranky cottonmouth. Twelve years might have passed since he was last in Sacred, but there were some things that just never changed.
So, yeah, he'd known this visit was unavoidable. But he'd stalled, because he hadn't wanted to spend what might be his last days scraping off emotional scabs that had never quite managed to heal. Crap like that sucked. Left you raw. Bleeding. And he already had enough problems to deal with.
Following the path farther into the woods, Noah lifted his face as a cool breeze fluttered its way through the trees and he pulled in a slow breath that had him instantly jerking to attention.
There was something there. Something rich and sweet beneath the verdant scents of the forest. Something primal and female that called to those increasingly visceral parts of him. But despite the instinctive hardening of his body and the almost primitive impulse to hunt and take, he knew he had to maintain control. Damn it, he knew that scent. Knew precisely who owned it.
With his heartbeat pounding in his ears and a low curse on his lips, Noah scanned his surroundings, knowing beyond a doubt that Willow Broussard was there in the forest with him. That mouthwatering scent was his first clue. The delicate little hand suddenly whipping around his shoulder, pressing a sharp blade against his throat was his second.
With her other hand fisting the collar of his Tshirt, wrenching his head back, she spoke quietly in his ear. "What the hell are you doing here, Winston?"
He choked back a frustrated growl and forced his body to remain still, unwilling to fight her for his freedom. She sounded irritated, but she wasn't going to kill him in cold blood.
At least, he didn't think she would. They hadn't parted on the best of terms twelve years ago. No way to know how she felt about him nowbut he figured it would be wise to play it safe. Especially for a guy with luck as crappy as his had always been.
"I asked you a question, Noah." The soft weight of her body pressed closer against his back, making it damn hard for him to concentrate. He could feel the sexy shape of her breasts, the tightness of her nipples, and knew damn well that she wasn't wearing a bra. Sweat broke out across his forehead that had nothing to do with heat and everything to do with the woman breathing into his ear. "What are you doing here?" she repeated.
It was a mistake to pull in another deep breath through his nose, his temperature spiking when her scent flooded his senses, his brain derailed by the feverish surge of lust ripping dangerously through his system. Determined to stay in control, he managed to rasp, "I need.to talk to your aunt. To Jessie."
Her low, husky laugh was one of the sexiest damn things he'd ever heard, and he wondered how sick it was that he had a hardon for a woman who was holding a knife to his throat.
"You've got to be kidding," she drawled.
"I'm not. I swear. You know I wouldn't be here if it wasn't important."
Silence, punctuated only by their sharp breathing and the rustling trees, and then she muttered a quiet, colorful curse and lowered the knife. She was taking a step back as he turned to face her. He tried to give himself time to prepare, but there was no way to hide the fact he was floored. Damn near knocked on his ass by the sight of her, just like he'd been the first time he noticed her transformation from a scrawny, troublesome tomboy into a beautiful girl. It'd been a sweet shock to his system, as well as painful as hell, since Noah had known he couldn't have her. His unlikely friendship with her older brother, Harris, had been part of the problem. Harris would have kicked his ass if he'd known Noah had a serious case of lust for his younger sister, and he hadn't wanted to lose that friendship. Then there'd been Jessie, who would have skinned him alive if he'd so much as looked at Willow with a whisper of interest.
It hadn't been easy, but Noah had somehow managed to fight the rising attraction.until that hot summer night when he'd come across her fighting off Johnny Stubb in the front seat of the bastard's Corvette. Raw, possessive fury had taken hold of him, and his resistance had shattered, along with Stubb's nose when it met with his fist.