Sixth of January, and even after sundown, the temperature hovered somewhere over sixty degrees. Sara had been in Louisiana long enough now that he almost considered sixty a cold night. A good temperature if your first Mardi Gras party was upscale enough you had to wear a suit, anyway. He had hoped for a costume party, but when your boyfriend was over a hundred years old and most of your New Orleans acquaintances worked for the Church, you took what you could get.
“Thaddeus, look, that man at the door is in costume.”
The disappointment must have overridden the excitement in Sara’s voice, because Thaddeus touched his hand briefly, something he rarely did in public. “I believe the jester is on staff,” he said, “but I’m sure there will be masks and other fripperies.”
Sara laughed and bumped his companion with his shoulder. “Fripperies? Really?”
“Most assuredly, fripperies.” Thaddeus Dupont sounded as stern as the monk he had almost been, but Sara felt the amusement ripple through him.
And, okay, suit or not, Sara couldn’t suppress his excitement. He was in New Orleans for Mardi Gras. He was going to a Mardi Gras party, not at some touristy hotel, but a private home in the Garden District. The night promised to be better than any fantasy he might have had before moving here. Of course, the gig came with the random demon, but you couldn’t have everything.
It also came with his current boyfriend, Thaddeus Dupont, vampire and demon hunter. Thaddeus made up for a lot. The chance to actually do something worthwhile as Thad’s assistant made up the balance.
“Wait, I want a picture.”
Thaddeus obligingly stopped at the gate and turned back toward the street as Sara whipped out his phone. Sara used the picture as an excuse to cuddle up next to the vampire for a minute while he adjusted the angle to get as much of the ambiance as possible. The white Victorian mansion behind them glowed with light. Hundreds of beads in green, purple, and gold strung the wrought iron fence surrounding the house. Bunting in the same colors draped the porch and balcony railing, and long streamers hung from the second story to turn the door into an event-worthy entrance.
Sara snapped off a series of shots, then lingered behind to post the best one to Facebook. His mother, half a continent away in Seattle, got antsy if she didn’t have a constant stream of pictures to prove he was healthy and happy. Sara checked carefully before posting, making sure the angle didn’t reveal the scar running down his face from the corner of his eye almost to his chin. He supposed she would see it eventually, but he intended to delay the inevitable freak-out as long as possible.
The scar picked that moment to start itching, as if sensing his train of thoughts. Logically, Sara knew the wound had healed to a thin white line. But when the urge to scratch hit, he imagined an angry red deformity eating the side of his face. His cheek throbbed, and he sucked in a breath. All psychosomatic. Stop thinking about it, dumbass.
He stuck the phone in his pocket and hurried up the sidewalk after Thaddeus.
At the door, the jester, also in green and gold, frowned as he scrolled through something on his tablet.
“What were the names again?”
“Thaddeus Dupont and Sarasija Mishra.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t see…”
Sara felt telltale goose bumps along his arms just before Thaddeus spoke. “Try again. I think you will find we are—” He broke off guiltily as Sara bounded up the steps.
“Dupont.” Sara smiled at the jester and peered down at the tablet. “Look, there it is. Thaddeus comma Dupont. Someone transposed the first and last names. Plus one. That’s me.”
“Of course.” The man smiled back. “I’m so sorry.” He opened the door with a flourish. “Enjoy the party, gentlemen.”
“You didn’t even want to come,” Sara chided. “But you were going to whammy him to get in?”
“You have talked of nothing else for the past week. And we were invited.”
Sara opened his mouth to argue further, but the table on one side of the foyer caught his eye. “Masks!” he exclaimed. “And fripperies!”
Lots of fripperies. Baskets overflowed with beads, feathers, gold coins, and glitter. Sara’s excitement dimmed a little when he got a glimpse into one of the rooms beyond. Men in suits and women in little black dresses stood in clusters sipping wine and highballs. Boring. Not a fruity rum concoction to be seen. Most were wearing tiny black silk eye masks; a few had masks on sticks dangling from their arms. All the good masks were still on the table, as far as he could see.
And this was kinda-sorta a work function. Their invite came courtesy of one of the White Monks, anyway. Resigned, he eyed the scraps of black silk. The scar sent a particularly vicious itch racing down the side of his face until he almost gave in to the urge to reach up and scratch it. Psychosomatic. It’s healed. His hand clenched at his side, and he forced himself to relax. When he looked back at the table, gleaming gold filigree caught his eye.
He shouldn’t. But his hand hovered over the gold filigree anyway. The delicate metal glinted in the light of the chandelier overhead as if daring him to put it on. Unlike the scraps of silk, it would hang over his whole face. He knew, without vanity, it would look stunning against his dark skin. And it would cover the scar.
“A beautiful choice.”
Sara jumped at the voice just behind him.
“But I don’t think the skull design suits you.”
He turned and sucked in a breath of terror. A bone-white beak swung dangerously near his eyes. He stumbled backward, sending a clatter of coins onto the floor as he hit the table.
Vampire quick, Thaddeus appeared at his side.
“Sorry.” The man in front of them pushed the plague mask up over his head, revealing the smiling face of Brother Michael. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.”
Peace and good vibes flowed into Sara, the way they always did around Michael. He tried not to scowl. He wanted to tell Brother Michael to cut out whatever he was doing, but he had no proof the monk was doing anything at all. Unlike Thaddeus, Michael wasn’t a vampire. As far as Sara knew, he was just an ordinary man. And anyway, what was Sara going to say, Stop making me feel happy when I’m around you?
“That’s um…” Sara waved vaguely at the mask, “…something.”
“Conversation starter, isn’t it? Aunt Berta has a collection of them, and she’s always after the family to wear them at Mardi Gras parties. She tells the most outrageous lies about where she got most of them.”
“Ha! Your aunt should meet my grandmother. When I was six, she convinced me I was descended from gods.”
“She sounds like a character.” Michael returned his gaze to the masks on the table. “Now, which one would your grandmother like?”
Sara picked up one of the black eye masks. “I should probably—” He broke off as Michael pulled a mask out of one of the baskets.
“This one.” Michael had chosen gold, too. Burnished gold shading to black, with more gold in glittering curliques and the eyes outlined in black to resemble kohl. “I’ve always been a fan of the Phantom of the Opera. Such a distinctive mask. Not the white one for Mardi Gras, of course.”
He waited while Sara fitted the mask over his face and then stood back to examine the results. “The colors suit you,” he pronounced. “And the style…” He broke off with a grimace, then recovered. “The style suits you, too. Come on, I’ll introduce you to Berta and we’ll see who has the better family legends.”
Yeah, the style suited him. A mirror hung in a gilded frame at the end of the foyer. Sara tilted his head, noting how the outer curve of the mask covered the scar down the side of his face. The man staring back at him looked good, though. Sara bared his teeth at his own reflection.
As he turned away, the glass caught the light from the chandelier overhead and reflected it off the burgundy in the mask. For a second, his eyes flashed an unholy red in the mirror. The illusion broke as Sara turned to follow Michael and Thaddeus into the party.
He glanced at me over his shoulder, the black-and-gold mask giving his smile a devilish cast. Again, desire rose too near the surface, distracting me from the crowd and the noise. We followed Brother Michael into the ballroom, where the walls were festooned with purple, gold, and green bunting. Towers of balloons filled each corner, and a trio played jazz on a raised dais in the center of the space.
Tonight marked the opening of the Mardi Gras season, and people in this town took their celebrations seriously.
“Excuse me.” A masked man in a black-and-white Pierrot dress interrupted our progress, offering flutes of champagne on a round tray. Sara and I both took one, though Brother Michael abstained.
My plain black silk mask limited my peripheral vision, which added to my unease. Michael stopped to speak to another partygoer, leaving Sara and me on our own.
He bumped me with his elbow, smiling widely. “This is awesome.”
My heart warmed, for my decision to attend this event had borne fruit. Sara had adapted to my isolated lifestyle in the bayou, but at heart, he loved society. I’d agreed to attend this party for him, and for him I would tolerate the crowds and the noise and the combative perfumes.
In the past, my business manager, Mayette, attended social functions and made my apologies. If not for Sara, I would have had her successor Nohea do the same. Now I was uncertain whether Nohea would appear.
My most recent conversations with her had been marked by bitterness. Some four months earlier, Nohea’s sister had been brutally murdered when I was unable to thwart a demon attack. A child, Nohea’s niece, had been left orphaned. My own home was no place for a toddler, so I gave Angelique over to the care of the monks.
The child had disappeared, and Nohea rightly held me responsible.
As if my thoughts had conjured her, an eddy in the crowd revealed Nohea, standing with her back to us near a table spread with hors d’oeuvres. I nudged Sara, pointing in her direction with a subtle gesture.
“Oh hey. We should go talk to her. Or…do you…”
With the mask in place, I could not read his expression, but his stumbling speech told me all I needed to know. “Yes, we should go talk to her,” I said definitively. We would never resolve things by avoiding each other, and Nohea had some eighty years ahead of her as my business manager. I gestured again, and Sara led the way.
Nohea’s dress was both shorter and tighter than I would have liked; however, the ruby silk made her skin glow. A thin gold band lifted the dreadlocks away from her face, and she wore a burgundy-and-gold brocade mask, with a cluster of gold fabric flowers at one side. Despite the mask, I recognized her by the set of her shoulders, the proud confidence in her posture.
I had known this young woman since she was an infant, and I considered her the daughter I’d never have. This rift between us wore on my conscience, and my accountability for her loss weighed on my soul.
“What’s up?” Sara wrapped an arm around Nohea’s waist and bussed her cheek with a kiss.
“Sarasija, buddy!” Nohea took a step away from him and gave him an obvious once-over. “Don’t you clean up nice.”
I stayed back, reluctant to impede their conversation.
“Are you here with the, um—” She tossed a glance over her shoulder, catching my gaze. “Oh.” Her expression sobered. “Hey, Thaddeus.”
I took another step in their direction. “Nohea.”
Sara stepped into the conversational breach. “So, did you come by yourself, or are you here with someone?”
“I dragged my friend Jeanette along. Or maybe she dragged me. I don’t know.” She directed all her concentration at Sara.
He poked her with an index finger. “Is that a friend friend”—he made air quotes—“or just a friend?”
“Aw, hush.” She slapped at his hands. “She’s just a friend.” With a chagrinned smile, she leaned over to whisper in his ear. “She was a field organizer for the Democrat in the last mayor’s race, so I told her she could schmooze people here.”
I shouldn’t have eavesdropped, but there was little else for me to do besides pretend to sip champagne.
Sara scanned the crowd. “But doesn’t this crowd skew Republican?”
“Well, hell. You’re right.” Nohea laughed. “I better go ride shotgun before she gets us both kicked out.”
I pretended to take another sip. The combination of the tart, yeasty scent and the bubbles tickled my nose. Nohea gave Sara another quick hug, catching me with a brief smile before striding off after her friend. Or did she? Perhaps I imagined the smile.
“That went…well,” I said, giving credit to what might only be wishful thinking. Nohea had been too angry to celebrate Christmas with us. I could hardly expect her to let things go so soon.
“Could have been worse.” Sara gave me a warm look. He was very much the handsomest man at the soiree, and there were not enough prayers to express my gratitude to the Lord for bringing him into my life.
“Excuse me.” A pair of women flanked us. Their leader, a slender blonde whose perfect hair and makeup disguised her age, tapped Sara on the shoulder.
“I don’t believe we’ve met.” Her gracious smile had the practiced warmth of a socialite. “I’m Annette Valcour. Welcome to my home.”
Sara clasped her hand, blinking as if startled by her iron grip. “I’m Sarasija Mishra, and this”—he touched my sleeve—“is Thaddeus Dupont.”
Annette blinked. “Wait. You’re Thaddeus Dupont?” Her attention went from surprise to something darker. “I’ve heard so much about you. How is it we’ve never met before?”
“Thaddeus who?” Her friend offered me her hand. “Are you one of those Instagram types? You sure are handsome enough.”
I endeavored to smile, for no other reason than out of respect for the woman’s advanced years. “No. I don’t Instagram.” I also didn’t want to speculate as to how Annette Valcour had heard of me.
“Your home is lovely, ma’am.” Sara interrupted us, looking for all the world like he wanted to burst out laughing.
“Thank you, S-Sarasija.” Annette gracefully avoided stumbling over my young assistant’s name. “I have to admit, we have an ulterior motive here tonight. If you got an invite, you probably saw we’d be asking for donations.”
Sara’s look clearly telegraphed help. I caught Annette’s eye, and while I did not intend to compel her, I did note her barrier was stronger than most. “I’d be most happy to donate. Would five hundred dollars be sufficient?” Nohea often had me sign donation checks for that amount.
“That would be lovely,” the older woman said.
“Unfortunately, you’ll need to correspond with Nohea Alves, my business manager, to obtain the donation. She is here tonight, and Brother Michael will vouch for me as well.” I nodded to show them our conversation was at an end.
Annette inclined her head, as if to say we’d be seeing each other again. “Of course. A pleasure to meet you, Thaddeus.” Her gaze stutter-stepped to Sara. “And you too, um…”
Though it took a great deal of willpower, I kept a tight smile in place and brushed Sara’s hand. “Let us see if Father Patrick is in the garden, shall we?”
An hour later, they hadn’t made it across the room, and Sara had to admit the party was shaping up. A lot of the boring suits and little black dresses had turned out to be nice enough people even if they weren’t exactly party animals. But Brother Michael’s Aunt Berta, dressed in a sparkly gold top and sipping a tumbler of bourbon, was a trip.
She appeared to have a cadre of young men on staff devoted to making sure her glass stayed more than half-full. And Michael was right. She didn’t so much tell a story as sell it. She had a crowd of people around her, hanging on her every word, no matter how fantastically unlikely the tale. She and Sara had engaged in a brief battle of family legends before Sara graciously conceded defeat.
Sara had entertained her with the story of a many-greats uncle who could turn into a panther. Berta launched into a family history rife with witches, secret societies, and blood rituals.
Sara laughed along with everyone else, but he lived with a vampire and worked for a secret branch of the Catholic Church. He had seen too much in the past few months to find black magic an amusing party story. When Thad touched his elbow, Sara was happy enough to have an excuse to leave the group.
Thad nodded toward the far end of the room, where a man with silver hair and an unseasonably dark tan stood. “We should have a word with Father Patrick while we are here.”
“Sure,” Sara agreed. “And maybe track Nohea down again, too.” The tightness around her mouth when she had faced Thad worried him. He lowered his voice. “Not that I blame her, but…it’s been four months. Do you think this constant obsession with Angelique is completely…healthy? She’s still barely talking to you.”
And, crap, he should have kept his mouth shut. They continued moving across the room, but Thad somehow conveyed the utter stillness he adopted when in the grip of strong emotions. Vampire. He seemed to glide, face and body still as the room moved past him.
“It is my doing.” The words were a breath, almost too low for Sara to hear them. “When Letitia was lost, I should have brought the child to Nohea rather than entrusting her safety to the monks. She’s right to blame me.”
Trust Thaddeus to absolve the sins of others by shifting any burden to his own shoulders.
Sara stopped, hooking his hand around Thad’s arm to bring him around to face him.
“That’s bullshit. You got the kid to safety. I know Nohea doesn’t want to see it, but we had demons popping out of the woodwork. They possessed her sister. Keeping Angelique with us would have been like dangling meat in front of a rabid dog.” Or an innocent child in front of a demon.
“I should have ensured her safety.”
“You’re immortal, Thaddeus, not omnipotent.”
Thad turned and continued across the room, not giving any hint whether the words had any impact at all. Fine. They were all going to have to clear the air soon, though. Because trying to work in the current atmosphere wasn’t helping anyone.
Priests apparently held celebrity status in New Orleans society, because standing next to Father Patrick meant a constant stream of people circling in and out of his orbit. After the initial round of polite small talk, Sara mostly tuned out. Discussion revolved around stuff that either didn’t concern him or, as a non-Christian, he considered outright bogus. He pasted an interested look on his face and occupied himself with people-watching and worrying about Nohea while Thad and Patrick talked. He barely noticed they had moved out of the main room to a more isolated alcove, until a stray phrase snapped the conversation back into focus.
“Sorry, what was that about the De Praestigiis Daemonum?” The treatise was the work of sixteenth-century demonologist Johann Weyer. A rogue translation of his private notes had turned up last fall, and use of the spells resulted in dozens of casualties, including Nohea’s sister, Letitia. Thaddeus had put a stop to the demons as well as to the man who summoned them, but the book had disappeared before the monks could take possession of it. “Do we have a new lead?”
“Unfortunately not.” Patrick looked grim at the mention of the grimoire. The White Monks existed to protect an unsuspecting populace from demons. Having the Daemonum on the loose represented a massive fail. “We may have reached an impasse. We’ve investigated everyone involved in the”—he glanced around, making sure they were alone—“situation last summer, and so far don’t have any actionable information.”
“You tracked down the seller?”
“Dead end.” Father Patrick’s eyes did another survey of their surroundings. “Literally.”
Okay, so no backtracking up the food chain. Who did that leave? Marc Goutard, the madman with the fun demon-raising hobby, was dead. Demon-possessed humans, dead. Demons…back to hell, he supposed. Did demons die? He ignored the reflexive itch along the side of his face, also a souvenir of the shenanigans.
So where was the book that had caused all the problems?
“I can’t believe we’re chasing a spiral notebook with instructions on raising demons,” he muttered. Something that evil shouldn’t look like your seventh grade English notes. “No matter how powerful the spells are, that thing didn’t sprout legs and walk off on its own.”
“Marc must have had family,” Thad offered. “Wasn’t his mother also involved in the occult?”
“Only in a business sense, as far as we can tell,” Father Patrick said. “We’ve spent the last few months investigating all the employees and as many regular customers as possible. The shop down in the Quarter focuses on the dark arts but caters almost exclusively to tourists. We found absolutely no evidence to connect that location to anything but souvenir sales and a few recreational drug deals. The other locations stock more New Age merchandise. Most of the employees didn’t even know who Weyer was and only knew Marc Goutard as a name on their paychecks.”
“What about the Gretna location?” Whatshername, Missy, had sure as heck known who Marc was. “The manager there knew her stuff and said she could get copies of rare translations, that kind of thing.”
“Gretna, yes.” Father Patrick nodded. “Mrs. Goutard lived in Gretna for many years and, I believe, considered that store home base. Most of the corporate administration was done from there.”
“Was? Did everything close down after Marc…um…”—killed a bunch of people, overestimated his demon-summoning skills, and had his heart ripped out by an angry vampire—“after everything that happened?” Sara figured his own eyes had done the jittery room-scanning thing that time.
He glanced to the man next to him, and their gazes met in a moment of shared memory. Thad’s storm cloud eyes went nearly black. He didn’t move an inch closer, but Sara felt a surge like a tectonic shift under his breastbone. He nearly doubled over as the emotions evoked by that night crashed through their bond.
More than anything, he wanted to take Thad’s hand. The urge to comfort, to reassure him that they were alive and well, almost overwhelmed him. The vampire had been to blame for nothing that had happened that night, but he had shouldered that burden as well as the others he already bore.
And he wouldn’t accept any physical gesture of comfort from Sara in public.
“…new manager was very helpful. He’s who actually found the record of sale.” Father Patrick was still talking.
Sara struggled to catch up. “Hold up. What happened to Missy?”
“The Gretna store manager.” Competent, helpful Missy. So sane next to her crazy-eyed boss. So why did his shoulders hunch a little when he thought of her?
“You mean Melissa Belcher?”
Belcher? Sara winced in sympathy. He had been the boy with the girl’s name at school. He could imagine what kids had made of Belcher.
“Ms. Belcher isn’t with the company any longer.” Father Patrick used his calm priest voice, the one that sounded perfectly polite but not horribly interested.
Huh. “But you guys checked her out, right?”
Father Patrick shrugged dismissively. “She was just the store manager. I believe she left to deal with some family matter.”
That’s what they called investigating? “Yeah, but she really seemed to know a lot about the, uh”—he looked around to see who could hear them—“relevant books in the store.” He tried to remember his conversation with Missy before Marc had shown up. What had Marc called her? Resourceful. Well, Marc Goutard had been a demon-raising psycho, so maybe not the greatest character reference. But still, the subject had been rare books on demonology, not Missy’s recommendation for a daily affirmation guide.
Before he could respond, peace and good vibes flowed over Sara, distracting him from what he had been about to say. Brother Michael’s mask had disappeared, and he held a glass of champagne in one hand and a cocktail plate piled with tiny desserts in the other.
“Now, now, I hope you aren’t talking shop tonight. We’re here to relax. Anyone want to try one of these raspberry truffles?” He didn’t seem too disappointed when no one took him up on the offer. He balanced the cocktail plate on top of the champagne glass so he could pop one of the chocolates into his mouth. “Delicious. And the macarons as well, if there are any left. The caterers outdid themselves.”
“Father Patrick was just…” Sara didn’t get any further before they were interrupted again.
“Uncle Michael, where’s your mask?”
“I’m totes telling Gramma Berta you ditched it!”
The newcomers crowded in next to Michael like his-and-hers bookends.
“Jo-Jo! Where have you been?” He tapped the sequins on the girl’s face. “That’s not one of Berta’s either.”
The girl twisted her lips into an obvious pout, and her heavily mascaraed lashes blinked out from behind her sequined mask. “We’re not allowed.”
“Punished,” her male counterpart lamented. “After we fell in the pool with them last year.”
Michael laughed. “Serves you right, then. Now, stop interrupting and be polite to our guests.”
Two pairs of identical eyes turned toward Thaddeus and Sara.
“Josephine and Josef Valcour.” Brother Michael did the introductions. “Thaddeus Dupont and Sarasija Mishra.”
“Hi!” they chorused in unison.
“Call me Jo,” the woman said.
“Sef.” The man’s voice came a half beat later so the syllables ran together, Josef. “Or people call us Jo-Jo.”
“You’re Dupont?” Josephine shifted away from Michael and into Thad’s personal space. Hard to tell behind the mask, but Sara thought she might be about his own age. Her little black dress covered enough skin it should have been modest but only managed to emphasize her curves. Nothing modest whatsoever about the red lips, sultry attitude, and designer stilettos.
She blinked up at the vampire. “I thought you’d be older. And Uncle Michael never told me you were so cute. Why haven’t I met you before?”
“I am not in town much,” Thaddeus said. “And I am usually working when I am here.”
“Oh.” She walked her fingers up Thad’s arm and then tapped him playfully on his chest. “Well, you know what they say about all work and no play.”
Thaddeus ignored the flirtatious remark, but she was now practically pressed against his side. Sara took a half step toward them, realized Thad would consider anything he might do inappropriate, and frowned at Jo. Her red lips curved upward, and she winked at him from behind her mask, like it was a game.
He frowned harder, then felt a slight bump at his hip as Sef sidled closer to him.
“Wrong team.” The words were so low, he thought he had misunderstood until Sef continued, “Not that Jo will care. Does your boyfriend party?”
Sara pretended he hadn’t heard. Not very believable with Sef’s lips practically in his ear, but easier than coming up with a response. His brain had frozen at the idea of Thaddeus Dupont and party in the same sentence.
“Actually…” Brother Michael’s voice cut through his discomfort, “…I’m glad you two showed up. Sara is new in town. You should introduce him to some people, show him a little New Orleans hospitality.”
“Sure.” Another chorus out of the twins.
“What about you, darlin’?” Jo purred at Thaddeus. “Wouldn’t you like some hospitality?”
Thad patted the hand on his chest benignly. “I have a few more matters to discuss with your uncle, but please take Sara with you. He should have a chance to enjoy himself while we’re here.”
Sara found himself being escorted back through the house, a twin glued to each side. Which was… Okay, wow. Didn’t suck. But. What. The. Fuck.
Had Thaddeus shoved him at a cute guy and told him to go play with the other kids?
Didn’t matter that Sara had been bored out of his skull five minutes ago. The conversation had just gotten interesting.
“I don’t think your boyfriend likes me.”
That was from Jo.
“Boss,” Sara said. Because as grumpy as he was with Thaddeus right now, he didn’t intend to out him here in New Orleans until he was ready. “He works for the Church. Don’t take it personally.”
“Oooh. Boss.” Sef made it sound like something kinky. “Your boss is hot. I’d take his dictation.”
That did it. Sara laughed. These two were going to be impossible to dislike. “Dude, dictation? What is that anyway?”
“I think it’s oral.” Sef smirked.
Sara rolled his eyes and tried not to laugh again.
“Mom alert.” Jo took a sharp right
Sara craned his head around, wondering which woman was his hostess. “I should thank her for…”
“Nope.” Sef hustled him along.
“She’ll keep,” Jo agreed.
“Okay, so pay attention.” As they passed the next group of people, Sef nodded toward them. “White-haired dude is Steven Burnell and he’s something regional for BP. The lady in the blue dress next to him is Lydia Wright and she’s a VP at Harrah’s.”
“Who’s the young guy?” Sara slowed, thinking they would join the group, but Jo-Jo pressed in closer on either side and bore him along past them.
“Not important,” Sef dismissed. He continued his commentary as they made their way through the house, tossing out more job titles than names: commissioner of police, a US senator’s wife, three state senators, a few more oil executives, regional director of a multinational bank, Orleans Parish district attorney, the lieutenant governor. Holy crap. The lieutenant governor? How connected was Brother Michael, anyway?”
“…manager of Chalmette Refining,” Sef finished as he opened one of the French doors at the end of the room.
“This is what you call introducing me around?” Sara’s head reeled as he tried to retain all the new names.
“What? You have something to say to the Chalmette guy? Really?”
“Well, no, but…”
“I just figured if you spilled a drink on the lieutenant governor, you’d want to know. Anyway, they’re useful people, so if one of them decides to bore your ear off with something, be nice about it. No sense making trouble with the governor’s office, ya know? Mama can get us out of a lot, but then we have to listen to her go on about it for the next year.”
“Ain’t that right,” Jo muttered next to him. “Wouldn’t think it would be so easy to cause a stir in New Orleans, but there you go. People know your family, and suddenly, any little thing is an incident.”
“What did…?” Sara trailed off as he got a glimpse of his surroundings. “There’s a naked girl. In a bubble. In your pool.”
Next to him, Jo took his hand and tugged him along, heels clicking on the pavement around the pool. “Mama hoped it would be warmer.” She shivered a little. “C’mon.”
“Don’t you think she’s cold?” The girl wasn’t actually naked, but the tiny pieces of fabric and shimmery makeup couldn’t provide much warmth. She waved and posed acrobatically as she floated around the pool in her giant clear ball.
“Nah, pool’s heated.” Sef barely glanced at her.
“Anyway, she’s getting paid.” Jo hustled toward the building at the other end of the pool. Sara could hear music pounding inside, and it wasn’t a jazz trio. With a final, sympathetic glance at the girl in the pool, he followed his hosts.
The pool house hosted a frat party. Or that was how it felt, anyway. Like he had stepped into an alternate universe where he had stayed in school and he and all his friends were still partying on their parents’ dime.
The lights had been turned down and the music up. A few people danced in a space cleared on one side of the room, but mostly everyone had clustered up or paired off. There were no waiters out here, but plenty of booze. Jo-Jo dragged him from one group to another, introducing him to people. All seemed to be undergrads at Tulane, or in law school, or occasionally medical school or doing an internship. As they left each group, the twins’ arms would go around him, and as their heads rested together, the gossip flowed. One of them always had a story, usually hilarious, frequently cruel. If the city’s rich and powerful were in the main house, their children were out here, and Jo-Jo knew all of them and all their secrets.
They finally pulled Sara down between them onto a sofa. “Well,” Sef said brightly. “Now you know people.”
“If you say so.” Something Sef had said earlier came back to him. “Useful people, I take it?”
“Our people.” Sef shot him a mischievous look. Sara wasn’t sure what his face looked like, but Sef just laughed again. “Being rich is awesome, darlin’. And that suit you’re wearing didn’t come from Walmart, so don’t get all frowny-face on me. I’m pretty sure being poor sucks, so let’s all be happy we’re not.”
Sara didn’t have an answer for that. His experience of being poor had lasted approximately a month until he went to work for Thaddeus. And it probably didn’t count when you had a car, a wardrobe full of not-Walmart clothes, and a family with a multimillion-dollar estate, even if they had been on the verge of losing all of it.
He looked around the room. Maybe he hadn’t known any senators, but he had an idea his mother or father might. He wouldn’t have felt out of place at this party with these people. Except it was all past tense. Ancient history. BT stuff. Life “Before Thaddeus.” Now he felt somehow out of step with his own generation.
Jo kicked off her shoes and curled up next to him. She idly played with Sara’s hair as she watched Sef. “This party is boring. Let’s get high and go down to the Quarter.”
“Mama will be pissed if we ditch this early.” Sef pulled a little tin out of his pocket and slid it open to reveal a small pipe nestled between two enormous green buds. He pinched off some herb and started packing the pipe.
Jo shifted next to him, and the silk of her dress slid along Sara’s side. Jesus, the people in here even smelled expensive, which was a butt-stupid thought. Who knew wealth had a smell? Anybody could slap on expensive cologne. It wasn’t just the designer scents, though. The fabric of their clothes, the high-end personal-care products, the whiff of dry-cleaning that clung to the men’s suits were all things he had never noticed before.
He wanted to chalk it up to some new Renfield power coming online, Super Smell, maybe. But tonight he probably smelled the same as everyone else here. Enhanced olfactory senses weren’t to blame for the new awareness. He had never noticed it because it had been normal. Now normal was Thad’s store-brand shampoo and the econo-size box of detergent Sara used on their laundry.
Sef lit the pipe, took a long hit, then offered it to Sara.
Sara shook his head. “I’m good.”
Sef passed it to his twin instead. Sara sank back into the sofa cushions and let the aggressively green scent invade his sinuses. He’d wind up stoned anyway. He’d already had a little too much to drink. Thaddeus would disapprove either way. So what was the difference if he took a hit? He didn’t intercept the pipe as the twins emptied the bowl, though.
He let his mind drift with the smoke and lazily watched the people around him. Jo snuggled next him and moved her hand from his hair to stroke along the outside of his ear as her breasts pressed against his arm.
On the other side, Sef’s hand had wound up on Sara’s thigh. Games. “So,” Sara asked. “Am I useful?”
“Don’t know, but you’re pretty.” Sef’s voice had gone husky. His hand squeezed lightly, and Sara’s body responded even though he had no interest in starting anything with the man. Okay, almost no interest. He was sandwiched between gorgeous twins. He would be dead if he wasn’t a little interested.
Anyway, Thaddeus had sent him with them, and it was nice to be publicly pursued.
He let his eyelids droop, inhaled another lungful of pot and privilege, and indulged in a fantasy where Thad’s hand rested on his thigh and Thad’s body pressed against his side for anyone to see.
The temperature in the room dipped as the door opened and closed again. Impossibly, a hint of cypress crept past the smoke. Sara opened his eyes and met Thad’s gaze across the room. Not impossible. Vampire.
He should get up.
Instead, he shifted so he could drape an arm around each twin.
Wrong-wrong-wrong. He wasn’t really that mad, so what was he doing?
He couldn’t seem to stop. Jo’s teeth closed on his ear at the same time Sef’s hand stroked up his thigh, grazing the outside curve of his erection.
Thad’s eyes flashed lightning. Cypress and loam clogged Sara’s senses, and blood rushed behind his ears. He hung in time, trapped in Thad’s gaze while hands and lips coaxed him to full arousal.
A cold fire down the side of his face jerked him out of the daze. He blinked.
Thad was gone.
In the distance, someone screamed. Adrenaline cleared the last of the fog from his senses as he shoved himself up off the sofa and pelted after the vampire.
Anger trapped me like a spider in amber. I stood frozen in the ballroom, hand on a French door. Sara. Beyond a swimming pool. In another, smaller building. Those young people—who were they? Josephine and Josef?—touching him.
Eripe me Domine ab homine malo…
But the Lord did not deliver me. I lost myself, lost control. Became the homine malo. The musky-sweet smell of hashish flooded my mind, silk slid over my skin, with a stranger’s hand on my…Sara welcoming, reaching out…
Non. Mon Dieu. I had not moved. I could not touch him, could not really blame him. Doubt, my constant confidant, squeezed through the gap in my confidence. Why would he tie his shining spirit to my living death? No matter that he’d stayed at my side when others might have left. Tonight was a precursor. Sara’s contract would end, and he’d leave me to my frigid darkness.
I did not truly believe those thoughts, but I could not extinguish them.
My stupor was shredded by a woman’s scream. I threw open the door and stalked outside. There were too many scents, too much noise, too many people. I felt Sara, distant and distraught. Nohea, behind me in the ballroom but moving fast, anger giving her presence a knifelike edge.
Faux torches set at regular intervals around the pool gave off a flickering, amber light, and spotlights shone blue through the water. The only occupant of the pool was a nude woman who knelt in a floating bubble, hands pressed to the clear plastic, facing the direction of commotion.
The screams came from a shadowy area between the pool and the cabana, outside the reach of the torches. A few figures ran in that direction, though others still stood together on the pool deck, confused by the turn of events. I picked up my pace, heading for the source of the screams.
The shadows concealed a small storage shed, the door yawning open. I sped past the others, reaching the door first and blocking the entrance with my body. One woman lay on the floor, and another knelt next to her.
The kneeling woman had blonde hair pulled sleekly back from her face, and she still wore an ornate black-and-gold mask. She radiated fear along with some deeper emotions wrapped in numbness, as if she needed time to comprehend what she’d just learned. The other woman was Brother Michael’s aunt, Roberta.
“Pardon,” I murmured. A commotion at the doorway caught my attention. I glanced in that direction, my hand extended, encouraging the other guests to stay out.
She jumped, startled, and gave me a watery glare, her eyes glazed with pain. “It’s…it’s…” She stopped, and I squatted down, giving her time to collect herself.
While I waited, I rested my hand on Roberta’s chest. No movement.
“She’s…” The woman choked on the word.
“I think Miss Berta’s dead.” She wailed the last word, setting off a rumble from the people huddled around the doorway. I sent out my senses and was forced to concur with her evaluation. I could find no spark of life in the woman’s body. Under the stink of chlorine and mildew, I could smell death.
A heavyset man in the doorway cleared his throat. “The ambulance should be here any minute.”
“It’s too late,” she wailed again, collapsing over the body.
“What’s going on?” Brother Michael had worked his way to the front.
I glanced at him solemnly. “Your aunt appears to have passed away.”
Michael stared at me woodenly, then sank to his knees. He made a quick sign of the cross, and I joined him. He reached out, his hand shaking, and touched the golden fabric of her top, his lips moving in prayer.
“What did you see?” I directed my question at the blonde woman. “We were talking with her only a few moments ago.”
“Um…” She rubbed her eyes with her knuckles. “She was walking funny. You know how people kinda stagger when they’re drunk?”
I nodded my understanding, and she continued.
“We were in the ballroom, but when it looked like she was headed for the pool, I followed her because I was afraid she’d fall in.”
“She’s done it before,” Brother Michael whispered.
The blonde woman made a humorous squeak, then covered her mouth as if she was ashamed for having laughed. “I remember that night.” Her hand dropped to her lap. “That was a helluva party.”
Brother Michael nodded. “So, Brittany, you followed her in here?” He sounded raw, wounded, and, unless I missed my guess, frankly terrified. Why?
“She was lying here just like this,” the woman said between sobs. “I asked if everything was okay, and she didn’t…she didn’t…”
Someone outside hollered, “Hey, the cops are here.”
I rose, having no interest in being interrogated by the police. Something about the scene bothered me, and I needed the freedom to move. I made one final sweep of the shed and the three people in it. “She didn’t appear inebriated when we spoke to her. I’ll take a look around.”
Brother Michael met my gaze, his eyes filled with distress. “Wait.” He started to say more, then gave a shudder, as if forcibly restraining himself.
“This isn’t…” His voice drifted away, confusion and fear battling in his expression.
“Then all the more reason for me to look around.” If he was surprised by my assumption that there was something untoward about the woman’s death, he didn’t show it.
“Thank you, Thaddeus.”
With a wave of my hand, I cleared the doorway and stepped out. Two black-clad patrolmen were headed for the shed, so I melted into the shadows. At the periphery of the crowd, Sara stood by Nohea, his arms wrapped around himself as if he was cold. I slid between people, calling as little attention to myself as possible, until I reached them.
“A woman has died,” I said without preamble. “And I’m going to search the area, see if I can pick up anything out of the ordinary.”
“We can help.” Sara straightened, his chin lifting as if he dared me to deny him.
I did it anyway. “No. You two stay together. Something about this is…wrong.” I left them without another word. I did not possess the skills to manage Nohea’s festering anger, Sara’s grievance, and the possibility of murder.
There hadn’t been enough time from when we spoke to her till she was found dead for her shell to be that empty.
I strode the grounds of Michael’s family home, making ever-expanding circles. The farther out I moved, the less likely I’d find something, and the more frequently my thoughts turned to Sara.
What had happened in there?
Something, of that I was sure, but the harder I poked at my memory, the slipperier it became, till I was left with the mournful sense that he’d left me in a way I couldn’t understand.
I gave up the search as fruitless and turned my steps toward my First Street house. And with that turn, my mood shifted from one of sadness to anger. If he wanted to leave, he should have just gone. I would never hold him.
Maybe I would not, but the contract would. The contract would keep him by my side for the next seven months, at least. Mon dieu, I should have known better. By accepting the position as my assistant, Sarasija Mishra had inadvertently agreed to be my only source of food for a year; more foolish me to allow him to become my only source of light.
There were no lights on at the First Street house. I circled around to the kitchen door, reaching out for any other presence. There. At least one heartbeat. But not two.
I slipped inside, pausing in the kitchen to get my bearings. Anger still percolated, like lava flowing just below the surface of my mind. I inhaled, testing the air for scent.
I had asked them to stay together, but Nohea was not here. Annoyance pricked me, a spark that set off a conflagration. My tendency to suppress emotions left me with plenty of fuel for the blaze. Uncertainty. Regret. Jealousy. Oh yes, jealousy whipped those flames like gasoline. Heaving with the intensity of my fury, I stormed through the house.
He waited in the dining room, back to the door, hands on his laptop.
“Sara?” My voice cracked on the word.
He slowly glanced over his shoulder, his brown eyes flat with pain.
My body went rigid. I fought to maintain control.
“Tu es à moi pour toujours.” Forever. The monster in me crossed the room in a step, reached for him, jerked him to his feet. “Toujours.”
I claimed him with a kiss so fierce, I drew blood. Mine? His? Peu importe. I crushed his body against mine, thrust my tongue in his mouth. I was distantly aware of his arms encircling me, his tongue dueling with mine, but those facts were subsumed in the overwhelming sense of mine.
I left his mouth and planted kisses over his eyes, along the scar that I hated and that burned my lips.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry,” he murmured, his lips brushing my skin.
What had started as the need to possess his spirit quickly transferred to his body. I ripped the shirt from his shoulders in one ragged tear, smacked his hands away when he tried to help with the fastening on his trousers. In moments, he pressed his nude body against mine, rubbing my hardness with his palm.
“Yeah, Thaddeus. Take what you want.”
I bent him over the table, pulled my own shirt off, and stretched out over top of him, bare skin to skin. My prick throbbed as I teased myself with his closeness.
He smelled warm and sweet. I licked the salty skin of his neck, then worked my lips down his spine. Grasping his buttocks, I spread him, his entrance a darker pink against his bronze skin.
“So hot,” he gasped, the words supporting me, giving me permission to continue. Oui. I had no oil, and I could not stop. I would have to lubricate him with my spit. The man had lost control to le monstre.
He cried out when I lapped at his hole, and arched his back to give me greater access. I took it, took him, worked my tongue into his tight space until he began to soften. I made him thoroughly wet, then penetrated him with one finger.
Sara writhed under me, and though it had been decades since I’d engaged in such depravity, I could not stop. “Does this”—I kissed along the curve of his ass—“feel good?” For his smooth, sweet skin felt like velvet under my lips.
“Oh God, yes.” His voice was breathy and threaded with tensions.
I added a second finger, reaching around to stroke his cock. “Shall I take you like this?”
“Yeah.” He began thrusting into my hand. “Just go slow.”
Go slow. Mon dieu. The beast within me roared with frustration, but enough time had passed for the man to assume control. I spit in my palm and stroked myself, then brought my head to his entrance. “Slow,” I whispered, and breached him.
His tight heat sent shivers across my belly. Teeth clenched, I worked myself in, inch by careful inch, his body tense underneath me.
“Thaddeus.” My name got lost in a moan.
I sank the rest of the way into him. “Sara, mon amour, you are so beautiful, so sweet, so strong.” Thrusting slowing, I matched the rhythm of my hand to my hips. “You have my heart.”
“Feed,” he whispered, and with a grunt, I shifted our positions, raising him some so I could reach his throat. I licked across his thudding pulse, and he relaxed in my arms. Yes. I would do this. Possess him in as many ways as possible.
His salty copper flavor pushed me further to the edge, and too soon, my desire crested, my hips thrusting wildly. I took him, drew his essence into me, swallowing, gulping. My body seized, my soul racked with pleasure. A moment later, he cried out, his release running warm over the back of my hand.
I drew him closer still and licked at the wound I’d made, healing him. In the aftermath, shame crept in. Embarrassment. What was I doing, taking him here, where anyone could see? Were we animals?
“Where is Nohea?” My voice wobbled, and I did my best to release him gently. I took a step back, then scooped up part of his torn shirt to clean both of us. He stayed bent over the table, resting on his elbows, his face in his hands.
“She, um”—he cleared his throat—“she left.”
I couldn’t raise more than a mild level of irritation. “I asked you to stay together.”
He straightened, turning to face me. He had a trickle of blood on his collarbone. I reached up to wipe it away, and he flinched. My hand stayed frozen, not quite touching him.
“She said she’d be back before morning.” He licked his lips. “Um, Thaddeus, that was awesome, but we should probably…” He waved at his body and the clothing strewn all over the floor. “Shit, you tore my shirt in two.”
I found I could not meet his eyes.
“Look.” He clasped my extended hand, interlacing our fingers. “This has been a crazy night. Let’s take a shower and get cleaned up before Nohea gets back. I have a feeling…well, I’d rather deal with her wearing jeans.”
“Oui. A shower.” I stood frozen, unable to comprehend the extent of my madness.
“Come on.” He tugged on my hand. “We’re fine, or we’ll be fine as long as Nohea doesn’t catch us running around naked.”
Grasping that simple logic, I allowed him to lead me from the room.
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