OneSo this was how a lamb felt at the slaughter.
Nothing in Susanna Duchamps’s isolated world prepared her for the barrage of sensations within the dark walls of the Shifter club. Sound battered her ears. Music pounded in a visceral pulse. Brutish figures hunched over tables, their voices loud and rough, their laughter carnal. Even the scent burning her nostrils was frighteningly feral, urging her to step back before she was noticed. Before she became a tender meal.
The moment she’d crossed the threshold of Cheveux du Chien
, the safe separation between their species was gone and she became the unprotected prey.
And at their
mercy, instead of the other way around.
Too frightened to move, Susanna feared she wouldn’t survive this huge mistake.
“You made it.”
Recognizing the direct voice of Nica Fraser, she turned, hoping her smile wasn’t wobbly with relief.
For an instant, the sight of the deadly mercenary-for-hire in her guise of waitress confused her. The last time she’d seen the tall, willowy assassin, she’d been in a stylish cashmere sweater dress and tall boots, looking more like a society fund-raiser than a black-denim-jeans-and-skinny-tank-topped barmaid. But in the cool, measuring stare, she saw the dangerous chameleon who’d risked her life to restore the one thing that made Susanna’s worth living. That’s why she’d answered Nica’s surprise call to come quickly and secretively to New Orleans.
“You said you needed my help, so here I am. It’s the least I could do to repay you.”
Nica waved off her gratitude. “Believe me, I was paid plenty.”
“Not by me,” came Susanna’s somber response. She glanced around, aware that their meeting was drawing attention she couldn’t afford. “Is there someplace we can talk privately?”
Noting the carry-on bag with its Chicago–New Orleans tag still attached, Nica asked, “Don’t you want to get settled in and freshen up first?”
“No offense, but I don’t want to settle in here. I’d rather get right to business.”
Nica’s quick smile softened her rather hawkish features. “Now I remember why I liked you. Follow me. We can use my boss’s office while he’s in the stockroom checking in a new shipment.”
They threaded a gauntlet of crowded tables. Hard rock rained down from an extensive sound system tucked in between ductwork and industrial lighting that dangled by chains and pulleys from the refurbished warehouse’s soaring flat, black ceiling. The beat was as primal as the clientele. Up close, the brute power of the rugged males was as raw as the harsh liquor in their glasses. Gleaming stares fixed upon her, some just curious, some vaguely menacing. She clutched her bag tighter and stuck close to her companion.
“Your boss?” she called over the noise. “You work here?”
Nica chuckled without looking back. “Quite a drop in pay grade, but my man’s a stickler for legality. Honest work for honest pay and all that self-righteous nonsense. Good thing he’s more relaxed in other areas or I’d never put up with him.”
Startled by the comment, Susanna glanced at her shoulder. Faint scarring showed beneath the thin straps of her tank top. “You’re bonded.”
“Amazing, huh? Good thing he
other qualities or he’d never put up with my lack thereof on the domestic front. They say opposites attract.”
Susanna said nothing as they climbed a short flight of wide steps to a room off a dark hall that had probably once belonged to the plant supervisor, who could keep an eye on his laborers through a broad expanse of glass. Those windows now gleamed with a reflective opaque of privacy.
Given the rough element in the bar area, the office of Cheveux du Chien
was surprisingly professional, from its red, black, and chrome décor to the surveillance equipment and high-end computer. Closing the door sealed out the raucous sounds from the floor.
“How was your trip?” Nica asked as she waved her guest to one of the black leather couches.
“Long. I’m not particularly fond of train travel.” She sighed as she sank into comfortable cushions and let her heavy bag drop along with her anxiousness.
“But it’s expedient and difficult to trace,” Nica justified. “You didn’t have any trouble with the tickets I sent, did you?”
“No. I didn’t expect to. I know you’re very good at your job. I wouldn’t have come here, otherwise. I’m sure you appreciate the danger this puts me and my family in, just talking to you.”
“I do. But I also know you’re not as delicate as your expensive pastel suit would suggest. I wouldn’t have asked you
here, otherwise. We’re professional females, you and I, and there’s little we won’t do in the name of business or family.”
“Why am I here, Nica? Business or family?”
“A bit of both, and I think you’ll find it very worth your trouble.”
A pique of interest pushed away her travel fatigue. “Go on. What kind of family business requires an obgyn?”
Nica hesitated for just an instant, then amended, “That’s not all you are. You’re a geneticist in a very specialized field.” Catching the jump of alarm in Susanna’s eyes, she added, “I had to know who you were, and what you were involved in, when you hired me. That information goes no farther than the two of us if you decide you can’t help me.”
Susanna relaxed, forcing her mood to become equally receptive. She trusted the other woman. Nica understood the importance of secrecy and security when survival was in the balance. It was how both of them lived their very different lives.
“So,” she ventured carefully, “exactly how much do you know about what I do?”
“Everything. I know your practice within the human world is a cover so you can access their databases. I know your private interest is in combining Shifter and Chosen DNA, and that even though the Purist Movement has offered to fund your research, you’ve refused their aid because of their reputation for, shall we say, meddling.”
“They don’t care about honest research. They’re only interested in furthering their propaganda of separate being better, and separate and not
equal, better still.”
Nica grinned. “Bet it feels good to say that out loud.”
Susanna returned a wry smile. “One watches one’s words when political ears are everywhere.”
“And long, unforgiving memories. It must get tricky hiding your true focus from them.”
Again, Susanna had no comment. The shadow of her enemies reached too far for her to feel comfortable speaking her opinion. There was too much in the balance. Instead, she asked more pointedly, “What part of my research concerns you?”
“Shifter regeneration properties.”
Her reply was cautious. “Personal or military application?”
Nica laughed. “I’m no friend of the military, or anything governmental, for that matter. I’m enjoying my newfound freedom a little too much to place it anywhere near their opportunistic hands.”
“Yes. Not me, personally, but a friend. I owe a debt, and in settling mine, you can satisfy yours to me. You aren’t obligated in any way. You’re free to say no and get back on the first train north with no hard feelings. Your work is valuable. I wouldn’t want to compromise it in any way.”
Compromise. That was the last thing she expected to hear from the razor-edged warrior. Susanna didn’t know much about Nica Fraser except that she’d succeeded when no other could with an unmatched deadly skill and cunning. But this softer side was a new facet to her, one that perhaps came with settling down with a mate. A wistful pang twisted through her, but it was pushed away as she turned back to business.
“Why does your friend need a geneticist?”
Nica’s shrewd gaze assessed her for a long moment. “Whatever I tell you
goes no farther.”
“My friend is close to a human who was critically injured and has no chance of recovery. This friend of mine is bonded to a Shifter male and through that bonding process, her own life was saved because of the regenerating qualities passed to her during the mating ritual.”
“Your friend is human?” Surprise gave way to fascination.
“It’s complicated. Let’s just say she and her mate both bring interesting DNA to the table, and because of that, she thinks these properties could be used to heal her friend. Given all the research you’ve done, do you think that’s even remotely possible?”
Susanna blinked. What Nica suggested was a shocking bit of science fiction with huge moral consequences. It was one thing to tamper with genetic traits within their own species, but to dare cross those lines artificially . . .
“I would need samples from her and her mate, and the human.”
Nica brightened. “You think it can be done?”
“In a lab, maybe. In actuality, I don’t know. I’m not sure it should even be tried. There are implications far beyond what any of you have considered.”
“But you’re willing to find out?”
Susanna drew in a shaky breath. Her thoughts swelled with intriguing possibilities, expanding until her mind could barely contain them. Could she?
“No promises. I’d like to sleep on it first.”
The door to the office burst open. A huge figure filled the frame, backed by the blaring pulse of a heavy metal mix.
“Nica, I need you on the floor. How much longer are you gonna be?”
Even before Susanna looked around, even before she heard his booming voice, she recognized the unmistakable scent that scrambled all her senses. She sat paralyzed with shock as the large male’s gaze touched upon her and held. For an agonizing moment, she feared he knew her, but then she realized he somehow recognized her not for who she was, but rather what. What she was, was not one of them.
“I’ll be just a minute, Jacques,” Nica assured him, her intuitive gaze snapping back and forth between them.
“Who’s your friend?” It was more demand than request as displeasure furrowed his brow.
Susanna stood, locking her knees to keep them from shaking. Her smile was as cool and impersonal as her tone. “I’m Susanna Duchamps. Nica and I have known each other for years. She was kind enough to help me find a place to stay when she heard I was visiting New Orleans.”
At the sound of her accent, his posture tensed. “And where are you visiting from, Ms. Duchamps?”
“It’s Doctor. Illinois.” She met his stare unblinkingly, challenging him to make more of it.
“Suze, this is Jacques LaRoche, my usually well-mannered employer.” When her curt tone failed to shame him, Nica sighed. “I was just giving her directions to Silas’s old place. She’s going to crash there for a couple of nights.”
Unable to read anything in his employee’s stoic glare, Jacques turned back to Susanna with a thin smile. “Enjoy your stay in the Big Easy, Dr. Duchamps.” Without taking his eyes off her, he backed from the room and let the door close behind him.
Jacques LaRoche may not have remembered her face, but he recognized her kind. He’d been in the North and he knew she was of the Chosen.
And that could make Susanna’s stay all kinds of difficult.
From his place behind the bar, Jacques’s narrowed stare followed the petite female as she skirted the busy tables, keeping her eyes cast low and her bag clutched close. It was impossible to ignore her.
Outside on the city streets, she wouldn’t be a novelty with her tiny stature and delicate features. The designer clothes would allow her to blend in with the tourists flooding the Quarter now that the weather was turning cool in the North. She could pass for human, but not so easily as a Shifter. Their females were sturdy, curvy, athletically rather than intellectually inclined. They didn’t look as though a harsh glance could break them in half. What are you doing in my city, Dr. Duchamps?
And why had his best waitress invited her amongst them?
“She won’t cause any trouble.”
Jacques didn’t take his gaze from the female in question as he growled, “Says you. What do you know about her?”
“I know she came down here at great risk to herself because I asked her to do a favor for me.”
“That makes her your responsibility. I don’t want her kind in here. I don’t take in strays.”
Nica laughed and reached across the bar to lightly pat his rough cheek. “Yes, you do. We’re all strays here, and you’re just the big softy who scoops us all up.”
Jacques was smiling ruefully at that title when the deep brown eyes of the woman across the room lifted to connect with his stare. And he felt again the same jolting shock he’d gotten when he first saw her, as if cardiac paddles had jump-started his heart.
Reason enough, even without knowing where she’d come from, to make him wary.
As she slipped out of sight, he turned to Nica, his features grim. “Don’t bring her here again. Consider that a favor to me.” He nodded behind her. “Table six is waving for you.”
Nica studied him for a silent moment before she picked up her tray and got back to work.
His place, his rules. Not too much to ask of the strays he’d taken under his wing.
Jacques went back to polishing his bar top until the wood gleamed like satin. His place. Pride in that accomplishment filled him, nudging out the uneasy feelings the Chosen female had stirred up. Nica was right. They were all strays here in New Orleans, the place where misfits were swept to be out of sight, out of mind, and kept out of trouble. And they’d been complaisant, scared, and isolated for far too long. But perhaps not for much longer.
Or at least that had been his hope until the fire.
It had been almost three months, and the insurance company and arson investigators still hadn’t cleared the way to reopening the Trinity Towers. The urban reclamation project that was to have been their sanctuary had almost become their funeral pyre. It stood unoccupied, another of Max Savoie’s promises gone up in flames, this time literally. Jacques had had two whole days living within those walls, pretending his life had gotten miraculously better before reality singed those dreams. And where was Savoie now? Not here, seeing to the interests of his clan. He was too busy settling his own affairs.
Jacques threw the bar rag into the sink behind him. Those dreams were like the lovely Dr. Duchamps, tempting but out of reach for someone like him.
He’d been happy with what he’d worked to carve out for himself until Savoie showed up with his glorious promises. He’d managed to remake his life upon the uncertain shadows of his past. A good life. His own business. A decent day job. Respect. Security. What more did a man need? Even a man who wasn’t by definition a man at all?
Then Savoie got him wanting more.
“Hey, Jackie. Busy night.”
Jacques poured a beer for Philo Tibideaux as his friend settled onto one of the bar stools. “Not complaining. How’s yours been?”
“Quiet,” Philo grumbled as if wishing it were otherwise.
Philo was one of those people who had changed drastically when Savoie stepped in with his big talk and bigger trouble. The carefree amusement of the lanky redhead’s world had been torn away in an instant when his brother was murdered. There was no more laughter in his eyes, just anger and a cold ash of emptiness. Even his appearance had evolved from shaggy disregard to a close-cut, hard edge of nerves and fury that made Jacques tense just being around him.
“Seen Savoie tonight?” Jacques asked.
At the mention of Max’s name, Philo’s lips curled. “Not around here. Him and his new boy have moved on to greener pastures. Could have told you that was coming.”
Jacques shrugged, but he feared Philo was right. Maybe Savoie’s attentions had
turned to a new focus, one that didn’t include an interest in his adopted clan. Or in Jacques’s concerns over the appearance of a Chosen emissary from Illinois.
In the not so recent past, Jacques could have discussed his misgivings with Philo, who had formed a security group to deal with the threat of outsiders. But Philo’s Patrol had taken on a certain paramilitary tone that made Jacques uneasy with his confidence. It was something he should have discussed with Max, but Max wasn’t here, and his promises had become as mercurial as his legend.
So Jacques poured himself a glass, clinking its rim against Philo’s in a companionable gesture as he glanced toward the conspicuously empty table at the back of his club. Screw Savoie. He didn’t need dreams. He already had everything he wanted.
Except a way to soothe the ache resurrected by the mysterious female from the North.
That longing for things he couldn’t recall.