“Nika! Telephone!” From her perch on a cypress branch, the sleek black panther ignored her mother’s summons, one tufted ear barely flicking in reply. Instead, the cat kept her wide green eyes on the small boat bobbing in the marshy water near the far shore. Her gaze fixed on the sweaty man struggling with a telephoto lens. His eyes darting between watching the house and watching the gators cruising beneath the murky surface near his bow. The big cat chuffed. Maybe the alligators would get lucky today. “Nika!” her mother called again. The elegant animal stretched behind the cover of thick Spanish moss, her long, sinuous body shifting to the size of a house cat before jumping soundlessly to the high grass. Green eyes spared another glance for the river and the photographer swatting at the mosquitos feasting on the man’s exposed skin. Swamp, one. Paparazzi, zip. The cat padded on silent paws toward a stilted bayou house, climbing the steps to the wrap around porch. The screen door opened and
shut, and Nika stole across the kitchen, tail swishing as she circled her mother’s legs. “Annika Lee,” she chuckled, “that’s enough sass out of you, cher. Ariel’s on the phone from Los Angeles.” At her agent’s name, Annika stopped midpurr. Her body tensed, fur rippling along her long, horizontal spine as she phased to human. Her mother smiled, a soft hand reaching for her daughter’s cheek. “The cordless phone is on the dining room table.” She handed Nika a kneelength sweater from the back of a kitchen chair, gesturing toward the other room. “I put her on hold.” Annika slipped the soft cable knit over her head, the supple cotton falling over naked curves to mid-thigh. “Did Ari say what she wanted?” Mom shrugged, moving back to the stove. “Ask her yourself.” Walking through to the dining room, Nika’s lip caught between her teeth. It was Jesse. Her gut clenched knowing it couldn’t be anything else. A year and a half had passed since that boy sent her life up in flames. And not in a good way. She shivered, realizing the paparazzo bobbing around in the marsh meant one thing. It was showtime. With a breath, she clicked the hold button. “Ariel, it’s good of you to call.”
“I’m not sure you’ll feel the same once I tell you why.” Nika braced for the worst. “That bad?” “A jury has been selected and Jesse’s trial is set to start in less than a week. The motion to have the venue moved to Louisiana was denied.” Nika didn’t reply. “Annika? Did you hear what I said?” She exhaled. “Yeah. I…I can’t believe it’s really happening.” “It’s been a year and a half, sweetheart. You had to know it was bound to be sometime soon.” “I know,” Nika sighed. “Some days it seems like forever ago, and others like it was yesterday.” Ariel exhaled a breath on the other side of the phone. “Media stories never go away. They get archived until they crop up again and start trending on twitter.” Nika rolled her eyes. “Don’t get cute. Still, it’s not as bad as I thought.” “What’s not, honey?” Moving toward the dining room window, Nika peered through the gauzy sheers at the backyard and the water beyond. “Being a hasbeen at twenty-six.” “Nonsense,” Ariel shot back, annoyance clipping her tone. “We’ve gone over this, Annika. You need to get back to the land of the living. The band is gone. Jesse is finished. YOU are not.” “Ari, please.”
“No, lovey. You were the driving force behind Dracone Noir, and the only band member with brains and talent. Not Ki, not Jean, and certainly not Jesse.” “Ari, c’mon.” “Look, at one time or another we all fall for the bad boy. Believe it or not, me included. Especially when all that defiant charm is wrapped in a dreamy James Dean package.” “James Dean?” Nika chuckled. “Dating yourself much, Ari?” “Hey, I may be old, but I’m not blind. Jesse may be hot-headed, violent and irrational, but he is definitely easy on the eyes, so who can blame you for waiting to see if his brains would catch up to his biceps?” “Me,” Nika replied. “I blame myself for being so stupid.” “You need to stop that, bubalah. You’re not the first girl to have her common sense ambushed by her private parts. Been there, done that. Hell, men think with their dicks most of the time, so what’s good for the goose is good for the gander, right? What’s important is you got out before you ended up on a stainless steel slab next to Ki.” Annika’s throat tightened. Ariel wasn’t the warm and fuzzy type, but she also wasn’t devoid of emotion. Her offhand comment was nothing more than ice cold fact. She may not have meant
to stun, but her words did so just the same. Ki Palmer wasn’t just Dracone Noir’s drummer. He was Nika’s best friend. “I’m sorry sweetie, but the truth is what it is. It could have been you on the receiving end of Jessie’s blade that night.” “I got lucky,” Annika replied. “No, you were smart to stay out of it. It’s time you opened your eyes to what really happened, love. Yes, Dracone Noir was the hottest sensation to hit the Goth rock scene in a while. You had millions of YouTube followers, and yes, that made my job a hell of a lot easier when it came to landing you a recording contract with all the perks, but it wasn’t a cake walk, Nika. You worked hard to get where you were, yet Jesse carried on as if the band’s success was all on him. And his antics? He acted as if you were still a bayou garage band with no responsibilities.” Nika exhaled. “I know.” “Still, anyone who knows anything in this business realizes you’re not to blame for what happened. We had such high hopes, especially for you.” Ari added. “And?” Ariel chuckled. “And nothing. Those hopes are what I’m banking on now.” Nika’s eyes widened. “You don’t mean—” “I always knew you were a smart cookie, bubbie. I pulled the proverbial rabbit out of the
hat once already. Given half a chance, I can do it again.” Annika snorted. “Thanks, but no thanks, Ari. This time I think I’ll pass on the fame and fortune.” She gazed at the softly swaying cypress, trying to ignore the photographer still manning his post. Exhaling hard, she ran a hand across her forehead. The man was a blunt reminder of the dark side of fame and how ill prepared she and her friends had been when it struck. Easy money and drugs quickly turned into missed recording sessions, jealous fights and eventually an unfinished album, but nothing compared to what happened on the beach that fateful night. When the sun came up, Ki was dead, and Jesse jailed for his murder. Overnight, the paparazzi swarmed thick as flies as record company attorneys dragged remaining band members into an ugly breach of contract suit. Endless police questioning sent Annika’s life into a spiral, so she retreated. With no peace and nowhere else to turn, she went home, bringing the media storm with her. Now it was back for round two. “You’re being emotional, Annika,” Ariel replied, clearly not taking no for an answer.
A rough grumble left Nika’s mouth. “After everything that happened, how else do you suppose I be?” “Professional.” The agent’s reply was curt, and Annika winced at the single admonishment “Ari—” “No, honey. You’re setting your jaw because Jesse’s trial is about to start. His situation has nothing to do with you. Not anymore. Did you know he was so drugged at the end, he claimed he could turn into some kind of tiger? With the way Ki’s throat was slashed, Jesse’s claims gave the defense a real shot at an insanity plea.” Annika cringed. For a bayou shifter, being outed to the world was a tangible fear, but being outed by one of their own was inexcusable. What made it worse, their elders predicted Jesse would betray them. “Will I be called as a witness?” Nika deflected, changing the subject. “Most likely, but my guess is not initially, so you have time to prepare.” “Prepare? Ariel, there’s no way to prepare for the grilling the prosecution has in store. The press is still painting this as a love triangle with me as the prize.” “Don’t worry about that.” She answered with a sniff. “I’ve dug up so much on Jesse, there’s no way that claim will stick.”
The room was suddenly claustrophobic, and Nika sank to the floor by the window. “I’ve gotta get out of here, Ari. I can’t go through another social media execution. Can’t you arrange for me to go somewhere?” “You know that’s impossible, love.” “Why? I’m not a suspect. Even the media stopped implying that.” Ariel exhaled a soft chuckle. “It’s amazing what a court-sanctioned gag order and the threat of a libel suit can accomplish.” “I’m serious, Ari.” Nika’s voice cracked. “I won’t be a sitting duck this time. You’ve got to know somebody with a house I can borrow. Maybe somewhere secluded and tropical?” “Sorry, honey. No can do,” Ariel replied. “The judge ordered everyone involved not to leave the lower forty-eight.” An exasperated exhale slipped from Annika’s mouth. “Then book me a flight to Los Angeles.” “Nika, do you really want to go straight into the teeth of this? Think about it. If just the idea of media coverage is giving you hives, how will you manage the horde of photographers waiting to greet you at LAX?” Nika threw a hand in the air. “What do you suggest I do, then?”
Arguing outside drew Annika’s attention and she got to her feet pushed the dining room sheers aside to look. “Crap, there’s another one,” she mumbled. “Another what?” “Paparazzo,” Nika replied. “Already?” “Yes. Now do you get why I want out of here? I spotted the first parasite watching the house this morning and another one just showed up. Sounds like they’re fighting over turf.” Nika let the sheers fall back into place. “I can’t stay here, Ari. It’s only a matter of time before the bayou is crawling with vermin, and not the kind native to the swamp. I won’t do this to my family. Not again.” Her agent didn’t answer. “Ariel? Are you listening to me?” “I’m here. I’m just thinking. The only way the media won’t pester you or your mother is if they think you’ve left the area.” “That’s what I said.” Ariel ignored her. “What if we plan it so the paparazzi see you leave for the west coast? I’ll have my office put out a press release saying you’re taking a house in an undisclosed location until the trial starts. The paparazzi will beat a path to Los Angeles faster than you can blink. They’ll scour the city looking for any sign of you.”
“Okay, then what?” “I’ll make arrangements for you to leave L.A., but under the radar,” Ariel replied. “And go where?” Nika’s voice raised half an octave. “I can’t come home. It’s the first place they’ll look.” “You’ll go to New York.” “New York?” Nika balked. “Those insects will find me there as quickly as they can in L.A.” “Not necessarily, lovey,” Ari countered. “New Yorkers are notoriously disinterested in celebrities. Why do you think so many A-listers live in Manhattan? New Yorkers don’t give a crap. They’re more interested in getting where they have to go than rubbernecking the latest celeb-du-jour. It’s the perfect place to hide in plain sight.” “And?” Nika prompted. “And what?” Annika leaned on the wall beside her mother’s china cabinet, her fingers twisting one sweater cuff. “Ariel, you never do anything without an ulterior motive, especially when you pick up the phone yourself.” “Not nice, bubalah.” She snorted. “Yeah, yeah. Cut the crap. Why the sudden push for Northeast?” Ariel paused. “I booked you a gig.”
“What!” Nika’s voice rose. “I already told you no.” “It’s time, Nika.” Annika shook her head, mild panic mounting in her chest. “No, Ari. I’m not ready.” “Yes, Nika. You are. Besides, you’ve been living like a nun for way too long. I know you love your family, but baby, you need to spread more than just your wings.” Ariel clicked the inside of her cheek. “This venue is very intimate, and it’s just the ticket to get you back in the saddle—in more ways than one.” “Let’s leave my non-existent love life out of the equation, thank you. Finding a hook up is the last thing I need right now.” Nika paused, chewing on her lip. “How intimate is intimate? Ari laughed. “The venue or its possibilities?” “Ugh, Ariel…will you stop trying to set me up? I’m not looking to date anyone anywhere. Period. I meant the venue.” “Who said anything about dating? You need a nasty roll between the sheets to take your mind off what’s happening in Los Angeles.” “Ariel, seriously.” “Okay, okay. The club is a trendy underground hotspot, but still very private.” “Trendy and hotspot are the total opposite of private.” Nika shook her head. “No, Ari. I meant what I said. It’s too soon.”
“No, it’s not, Lovey, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect.” “Why? Because Jesse’s trial is set to start?” Ariel paused. “Yes.” “That’s cold. Even for you.” Nika exhaled a breath. “No, it’s business, Bubbie. When it comes to the entertainment industry there’s no such thing as bad PR. The trial will put you front and center on every media outlet. YOU. I’ve always said you were better off as a solo. I told you a thousand times before Dracone Noir went up in smoke, but you refused to leave that tweaked out hothead.” “Ari—” “No, Nika. I’m your agent and your attorney, not to mention your friend. I know you felt responsible for everyone in the band, especially Jesse. When you finally saw him for what he was, you still wanted to make things work for the sake of the band. It’s done, love, and now it’s time you did something for yourself. Listen to me for once, okay?” “And it’s about time you listened to your mama as well, cher,” A third voice added. “Mother!” Annika yanked open the dining room door and stared at her mother. “Get off the phone!” “No, bebe. Ariel’s right. It’s your time to shine.”
Ariel chuckled, despite Nika’s hard exhale. “Thank you, Jolene. Between the two of us, maybe we can get your girl to see reason. Jesse LaFont had his shot. He made his bed and frankly I’m grateful it’s not one Annika has to lie in as well.” “In more ways than one.” Jolene snorted. “So, amen to that.” “Mama!” “We all need to be on the same page here,” Ariel interrupted. “As for you, Nika, it’s about time the world knew how special you are. I’ve been urging you to get back to the land of the living for months now, and this is the perfect opportunity. “We’ll set up under the radar,” she continued. “Like when a headliner does an impromptu set at a neighborhood bar, although this place is far from local.” Nika spared a glance for her mother, still listening on the line. “Yeah, but afterwards It’ll be all over social media. So much for lasting peace and quiet.” “Annika, you’ll have to face the press at some point. By the time you’re done with this one night gig, Jesse’s trial will have started, and chances are you’ll have to head to L.A. anyway.” Ariel exclaimed. “At least this way the press will be on your terms. Besides, New York is better for your solo debut, especially now that you’ve—” she
hesitated. “Sampled your mother’s cooking again.” Both Jolene and Nika exchanged a look. “And what’s that supposed to mean?” Nika asked. “You’ve spent enough time in Los Angeles to know exactly what that means. Hollywood is obsessed with appearance. Look at the problems other celebrities have endured under that kind of scrutiny. Who can forget how the media crucified Jessica Simpson when she tipped the scales.” “Ari—” “I’m sorry, love, but our industry is cold. You’re curvy now, and whether we agree with it or not, Los Angeles is an unforgiving place. Better to be in New York where the public isn’t as superficial.” Annika chewed her lip. “I’m telling you now,” she paused, “I won’t starve myself to fit some industry mold. My talent has nothing to do with my dress size and if they don’t like it, too fucking bad.” “Amen again, cher.” Her mother nodded. Nika puffed out a resigned breath. “Okay, Ari. You win. What’s the name of this perfect venue?” “The Red Veil.”
Chapter Two Annika hung up and walked into the kitchen. Her mother’s not-so-quiet inhale at the club’s name, not something she imagined. Jolene’s face said it all. Her mother needed no explanation as to what The Red Veil was or who ran the place. Avoiding her mother’s eyes, Nika took an apple from a bowl on the kitchen table and rubbed the red skin on her sweater before taking a bite. “You know,” she said, chewing slowly. “It wasn’t easy growing up with a mother who could hear a pin drop in the swamp, let alone deal with her uncanny premonitions, but now I’m glad. What do you think, Mama? Do I go to New York or not?” Jolene Lee put the phone receiver back in its cradle and then moved to stir the fragrant gumbo simmering on the stove. “My extraordinary talents kept you from plenty of trouble when you were little, not that you ever listened.” “Mama, you didn’t answer my question.” Her mother covered the cast iron pot before turning with the roux-stained wooden spoon in her hand. “I don’t like it, Nika. Not one bit. Ariel Fischer has no clue about our kind or the
supernatural in general, so she has no idea this Red Veil is a blood club. Vampires. For God’s sake!” She shook her head. “Plus, something else feels off about this and I can’t put my finger on it.” Jolene lifted her forearm, holding it out to show her daughter. “Look at the hair on my arm. It’s all electric and standing tall. I’m never wrong when my body reacts like this. Something is brewing and it’s not the weather.” She pointed her wooden spoon at her daughter. “Ariel’s jaw is hinged in the middle sometimes, and you know it. Her entire living is made off the talent of others and my gut tells me she has her own reasons for sending you to New York.” “Of course she does, Mama. Ariel’s my agent. She’s doing this for me. For us.” Jolene crossed her arms in front of her chest. “On the surface, yes, but Ariel is an opportunist. She’s not going out of her way if there’s no payoff. You heard her yourself. She planned this to coincide with that good-for-nothing LaFont boy’s trial. She’s had this up her sleeve just waiting for the right time. You better read the fine print on this one, cher.” Her mother looked at her. “Besides that, I’m not happy about this plan for other reasons. Reasons closer to home.”
Annika wiped her mouth on a napkin and then tossed it and the apple core into the trash. “Let me guess.” “Don’t get fresh with me, bebe. Shifters and vampires do not belong together, and I forbid you to go.” “Amen to that,” a deep voice interjected. Both women turned. “Guy, what a nice surprise,” Jolene’s lips spread into a genuine grin and she smoothed her hair back from her face. “Sheriff.” Annika nodded. He took off his hat and walked to her mother’s side giving Jolene’s cheek an awkward peck. “Something smells amazing.” Jolene blushed. “Go on with you.” She gave the man a playful shove, but her eyes sparkled at his double meaning. “Gumbo’s just about done. You know where the bowls are.” “Who said I was talking about the stew?” He winked at Nika and opened the cupboard to the right of the sink and took out three bowls. “So what brings you out our way, Sheriff?” Annika asked, putting spoons and napkins on the table. The man was smitten with her mother and she stifled a knowing grin. “You mean besides your mother’s famous gumbo?” He grinned. “I came to check up on you, now that you ask. A little bird put a bug in my ear
those pesky photographers were setting up house again, but I see you’re okay.” He pursed his lips, his eyes soft and appreciative. “You look good, Nika. In fact, I haven’t seen you look this good in a long time. Healthy. I guess your mama’s cooking is doing the trick bringing you the rest of the way back from la-la land. I’m glad to see it. You’re as pretty as ever. Not that nervous skeleton that came home exhausted and terrified.” Annika smirked. “You didn’t come all the way out to the swamp just to compliment me, Sheriff, much as I appreciate it. Have you heard something about Jesse’s case?” “Nah.” He shook his head. “The Los Angeles prosecutor’s office can have that miscreant. I’ve got trouble enough with the rest of his pack.” “More camp break-ins, Guy?” Jolene asked. “No. Some of the LaFont boys partied in the cemetery last night, and while I usually don’t bother with minor criminal mischief, this time graves were damaged. Some desecrated, and I won’t have that.” Jolene made a face. “That family has been nothing but trouble for generations, right up to this nasty business with Jesse.” Jolene eyed Annika, shaking her head. “How many times did I warn you about that boy?” she sighed, letting her words trail off.
Nika looked away. Her mother was right. Guilt slashed at her chest for being so stupid and naïve. Jesse LaFont was the bad boy all her friends fantasized about. From the cool, rebuilt motorcycle he rode with his cousins, to his tattoos, and of course his electric guitar, Jessie was drool worthy from one end of Terrebonne Parish to the other. The fact he could body double for Jax from Sons of Anarchy only added to the allure. The memory stung and Nika winced. “I hear you’re thinking about starting a band,” Nika’s voice cracked a little as she approached, but she played it cool. Jesse nodded, his eyes giving her a quick once over. “Yeah, so?” “Maybe I could sing for you sometime. I’m pretty good.” He laughed, swinging his leg over the side of his Harley. “Drop some poundage, little cow. Then you can show me how ‘good’ you are. I might even let you sing, too.” She cringed at how she’d starved herself for two months, anticipating the moment when he’d notice her for real. That time came quickly enough. He was sitting on his bike outside the Dairy Queen. It was a full moon, and every shifter in the parish was on the prowl. It didn’t take long for Jesse to spot her sleek new curves.
Things moved quickly from there, but his bad boy act got old, fast. Especially since the sex, like everything else, was always on his terms, and when he was done, that’s all she wrote. Problem was Jesse wasn’t done with her. Not by a long shot. The boy wasn’t as dumb as everyone thought. Nika was his ticket out of the bayou, and he had staked his claim. Not in a formal shifter claiming and Annika exhaled knowing full well she dodged a bullet in that respect. No, Jesse’s claim was more proprietary. Nika was his, same as his guitar, and the two together were his path to success. By the time the record company came sniffing around, Jesse was needy and jealous. He made it clear he’d see to it no one would want her if she ever left. He was never specific, but the veiled threat was real enough to scare. Annika sighed, closing her eyes, and a pang of guilt bit into her gut. Everyone said no, but she knew Ki was dead because he tried to help. As if reading the emotion on her face, Guy patted her hand, bringing her back from her memories. “Spilled milk, cher. Don’t let what happened buy real estate in your head. You’re home now. No more carrying on with that lot.” “Why does everyone hate the LaFont pack so much?” Annika asked putting sliced French
bread on the table. “Jesse is one thing. What he did is unforgiveable, but why the whole pack?” Her mother put her wooden spoon on a damp dishcloth and leaned against the sink. “It’s a long story, love. With roots that go back farther than anyone can remember, but most recently it has to do with Old Marie Bergeron.” Nika’s brow knotted, confused. “The voodoo priestess? I thought she died years ago.” Guy nodded. “She did. It’s got to be going on ten years now. She passed not long after her daughter committed suicide and her grandson ran off. That boy couldn’t have been more than seventeen.” “You were only four or five at the time, Nika, so it’s no wonder you don’t recall,” her mother added. Annika looked at them. “What has any of this got to do with Jesse?” Jolene shrugged. “It doesn’t. Not directly, anyway. It has more to do with his people. You see, Old Marie was a formidable woman in these parts. Respected and feared. She knew the swamp as though its ebb and flow coursed through her veins. She was powerful. Much as she was admired, folks kept their distance.” “And?” Nika prompted. “Fabienne, Marie’s daughter, didn’t want to be associated with anything that had to do with her mother. In fact, she did everything she could
to separate herself from her Créole roots and her mama’s voodoo. She wanted to be somebody else. Anyone other than what she was. Sad really.” Guy nodded in agreement. “If she lived, Fabienne would have been about your mama’s age. Back in the day, the girl ran around something fierce, and she had a particular fondness for the LaFont boys. No one could talk sense to her, though she was barely sixteen. “You see, cher, Fabienne Bergeron was beautiful. Exotic. She had long black hair and eyes so dark they could pierce the soul. Tall and statuesque with smooth ivory skin. “She turned heads wherever she went. Sadly, she ended up pregnant, and when Marie confronted old man LaFont, he refused to acknowledge the child as his blood. “They never did figure which one of the LaFonts was the father, but even if the guilty party came forward, their grandfather would never permit the child to carry the family name.” A disgusted sound left Jolene’s mouth. “They’re a bigoted bunch. In their eyes, Créole blood is slave blood. Same as if the last hundred fifty years of progress never occurred.” “So what happened?” Nika asked. Her mother shrugged. “Marie raised the boy as best she could. His mama was useless. Drunk most of the time. He learned everything he could
from Marie. He took to the swamps and cypress forests like he was part of them, same as his grand-mére. “He grew up wild, running with the deer and crawling with the gators. He was the best tracker in these parts, until the day he found his mother floating in one of the canals. “Fabienne heard old man LaFont was dying, so she went to try and get him to acknowledge her son before it was too late, but he refused. She was laughed out of their camp. Humiliated. The boy found her drowned not too long afterward.” Jolene paused. “His grand-mére went crazy. She swore vengeance, conjuring a dark, evil magic only hate and pain can summon. Marie Bergeron cursed the LaFonts with a powerful gris that robbed them of any peace, leaving their children to suffer loss and shame generation after generation.” Nika looked at her mother. “What happened to the boy?” “No one knows,” she replied with a shrug. “He hasn’t been back since, but rumors swirl each time something unexplained happens in the swamp. It’s said Marie gave him the key to dark magic.” “Dark magic?” Jolene nodded. “They say the voodoo priestess made him Rougarou.”
“Oh, come on. Seriously?” Nika’s mouth wore a dubious sneer. “A shifter with a human body and the head of a wolf? Please. That’s an insult to our kind.” Her mother shook her head, annoyed. “That’s beneath you, Annika. The dual-natured are a part of the natural world, but to be Rougarou is black magic, a dark burden placed on someone’s soul. “The beast craves blood and that means a constant struggle between light and dark for whoever bears the curse. Marie gave her grandson the dark power as vengeance on his father’s bloodline.” Annika inhaled and let her breath out slowly. “Well, it doesn’t sound like much of a curse if he’s never been back, and considering the LaFonts were partying in the cemetery last night, it doesn’t sound like her curse is working on them either.” “Oh, it’s working.” Her mother nodded. “Most of the adult LaFont men are either dead or in jail. Swaggering, puffed up pretty boys.” “Pretty boys?” Nika questioned. “And why didn’t anyone tell me this before I went halfway across the country with Jesse?” Jolene snorted. “As if you would have listened. That boy had you so bewitched I could have sprouted horns and played the blues and you wouldn’t have noticed. No surprise, though.
What the LaFont’s didn’t get in character, they made up for in good looks. As mouthwatering as a juicy apple, that is until you take a bite and get a mouthful of brown mush and worms.” “On that note, I think I’ll hit the road,” the Sherriff pushed his chair back, but her mother laughed, waving him back. “Sit yourself back in that chair, Guy Fortinet.” She winked, lifting her hand to his cheek. “You have your own brand of charm and you know it.” He cleared his throat, glancing toward the window and the arguing that started up again in the usually quiet marsh. “Those photographers are multiplying like insects out there,” he redirected, craning to pinpoint their location in the tall cypress. “Want me to run them out of the parish like I did the last time? I have no problem bending the law when it comes to protecting my own.” Annika shook her head. “That won’t be necessary, Sherriff. They’ll leave as soon as I do.” He turned his gaze to her. “The last time you left home you ended up in a heap of trouble and worried the pack sick, yet here you are planning to pack up again. Since I couldn’t help but hear the word vampire tossed around this kitchen, let’s just say my curiosity is more than a little piqued.” “Curiosity killed the cat, Sheriff. Remember?”
“Don’t get fresh, young lady. Or have you forgotten it was Guy who saved our behinds the last time those pizzarrazos set up in the swamp.” “Paparazzi,” Annika corrected. Jolene raised one eyebrow. “Sorry, Mama.” Her eyes flashed downward before looking up again. “And I’m sorry you had to hear Ariel’s suggestions on improving my love life. I’m surprised your ears aren’t bleeding.” Her mother wiped her hands on a dishtowel, considering. “Bebe, do you think you’re the only one to feel the pull of the opposite sex? I may be older, but I still like the feel of an appreciative eye checking out more than my gumbo.” “And trust me. Your mama has enough spice to turn any man’s head, especially mine.” Guy winked. Jolene’s cheeks flushed, despite the small grin tugging at her lips. She cleared her throat, turning back toward the stove to give the gumbo one last stir. “That’s quite enough of that. We’re discussing Nika. You’re a pretty girl, cher. You should be sowing your wild oats.” She looked past her shoulder at her daughter. “Within reason.” “Even at a vampire club in New York?” Nika’s teasing smile faded the moment she saw the look on her mother’s face. “Running wild with your own kind is one thing, but mixing with the undead or even joking
about it—” Jolene shook her head and hung the dishcloth neatly on the stove. When she looked up again, her jaw was set. “That’s it,” she continued. “You’ll stay here where you belong. I won’t have you traipsing around a godless city where the undead are celebrated front and center. “The pack will rally and keep the reporters away until this business with Jesse LaFont blows over like a temporary squall. You’ll settle into the bayou life you were born to and that’s that.” Annika shook her head, knowing she was about to break her mother’s heart. “I can’t, Mama.” “For heaven’s sake, why not?” she argued. Nika looked at her mother’s worried face. “Because Ariel is right. I need to start over.” “Why can’t you stay here and start over?” Jolene’s voice hitched. Ready to reply, Annika set her jaw, but Guy got up from his seat with a chuckle, slipping his arm around Jolene’s waist. “It’s no use, love. She’s pigheaded, just like her mama.” He took Jolene’s fingers and laced them with his own. “Nika’s made up her mind and nothing is going to change it.” He tightened his grip, giving her a squeeze. “You raised a smart girl. After her dealings with the LaFont boy, Annika won’t forget who she is
again. She’ll find her way home, even if it’s from New York.” “But the vampires, Guy—” He kissed Jolene’s temple, sparing a wink for Annika. “Nika can handle herself. Vampires aren’t the only ones with sharp fangs. My money is on our bayou shifter to show them what’s what.” Nika blew him a kiss, offering up a silent prayer he was right.
“What’ll it be, miss?” Annika looked at the handwritten menu tacked to the side of the coffee truck. “I’m not sure. What’s good?” “Lady, it’s all good. We got people waiting. What’ll it be?” She shot the guy a peeved look, but before she could say anything else, another man pushed the rude one aside. “Beat it, Sal. Find some other place to loaf— and stop annoying my customers” This man was older, with eyes that shined with quick laughter. He gave Nika a swift once over and then gestured to the black and gold logo on her tee-shirt. “Where you from, sweetheart?” he asked, wiping his hands on a stained dishtowel. “New Orleans,” she replied, and in her full drawl it sounded like ‘Nawlins. He nodded. “Nice. I’m a fan of the Saints, too. Well, when the Giants aren’t playing, anyway.” With an easy laugh, he gave her a chin pop. “Now what can I get you?” “Just coffee and a donut.” She pointed to a glazed cruller. “In the Big Apple it’s never just coffee. It’s coffee regular. That means milk and two sugars.”
“Then coffee regular sounds perfect,” she met his smile with one of her own. “Good, and to make up for my buddy’s lack of manners, I’ll throw in a buttered bialy just to say welcome to the Big Apple.” “A bialy?” she raised an eyebrow. “A New York tradition right up there with bagels and cream cheese,” he explained while wrapping her food. “No charge, sweetheart.” He handed her a grease-splotched paper bag. “Welcome to the City that Never Sleeps.” The small crowd waiting in line behind her applauded, and Annika thanked the man before scooting out toward the street. Had they recognized her? She shook her head. Not likely. Not with her back to the queue the whole time. Breaking off a piece of the cruller she walked toward the famed New York City Library munching on its buttery goodness. Midtown Manhattan was a crawling mass of humanity, and at this time of day they seemed to all congregate on the steps of the library with its giant lions guarding the steps to enlightenment. An array of diverse scents set her Were senses on fire. Annika wandered into Bryant Park and sat at a small wrought iron table, sipping her coffee. Lifting her face to the warm spring air, she inhaled, trying to enjoy the small slice of nature
as people rushed back and forth. She ignored their frenetic pace until a riot of scents hit her. Her eyes flew wide, turning to stare at a particular man as he tossed a paper bag into the trash. He was ultra-thin and geeky, complete with bowtie and dandruff, and Annika snorted out a laugh from the scent of raw sex clinging to the man. Literally. Holy fuck! The nerdy dude clearly had hot, nasty, monkey sex with more than one partner. In the last hour or so! The sticky musky scent tickled the back of Nika’s throat, and she coughed. “God bless,” he replied automatically. Biting the inside of her cheek, she muttered a quick thank you trying not to giggle. He nodded absently. “Have a good day.” “Not as good as yours, I’m sure,” she mumbled back with a giggle. He gave her a curious look and she couldn’t help it. She burst out laughing and watched as he headed in the opposite direction toward the library. Annika shook her head. If the music didn’t pan out, she could always make a living as a private investigator sniffing out cheating spouses. She finished her food and headed out of the park to the street. Lifting her hand, she tried hailing a cab like she’d seen others do, surprised one pulled over almost immediately. She opened
the rear passenger door and slid onto the backseat. “Where to, lady?” the cabbie asked, glancing at her in the rearview. The newspaper on his dashboard showed a front page picture of her with the band, but even with her face splashed across every tabloid in town, no one recognized her. Or if they did, they didn’t care. Annika grinned, and for the first time in ages she felt free. “Sweetheart, the meter’s ticking. Where to?” She met his eyes in the mirror. “The Red Veil.”
“Oh my God! You’re here! You’re really here! Annika Lee is in the house!” A perky brunette with a short, 1920s bob came forward, her pace almost a giddy skip. “I’m Bette Mason. Welcome!” Annika bit the inside of her cheek as she took the enthusiastic woman’s hand. It was cold and marble-white, and when the girl smiled, a definite hint of fang peeked from beneath her red lipstick. “I’m pleased to meet you. Are you the club’s manager?” Nika replied. The brunette vampire’s short, chin-length hair brushed both cheeks as she shook her head.
“No, that would be Abigail Bigly. She’ll be here later tonight.” Youthful appearance wasn’t always what it seemed when it came to the undead. Bette might look to be in her early twenties, but the vampire could have been around since God was a boy. “Does that mean you’re my personal assistant for the time being?” Nika hoped she didn’t sound like a diva. Some celebs liked the term handler instead, but for the dual-natured it reeked too much of zookeeper. She shook her head, clearly disappointed. “Unfortunately no, although I did ask to greet you when you arrived. The late afternoon still zaps my strength, but I’ll feed after I get you settled and be right as rain before this evening. The Red Veil is our playground, and tonight it’s yours, too.” “I’m trying to keep a low profile, Bette, so I hope that doesn’t mean you’ve planned something elaborate.” The woman turned, wrapping Annika’s arm in hers. “I am such a huge fan! It’s too bad what happened with the band, but I’m thrilled you’re trying for a solo career. Ariel Fischer didn’t have to work very hard to sell us on the idea.” The vampire had evaded her question, and doubt crept across the back of Annika’s mind. “Come, let me show you around.” Bette gestured toward an inside door with a smile.
A labyrinth of office hallways wound until they reached the entrance to the main club. Bette motioned for the bouncer to open the door and then practically skipped through its threshold. “This is it. The place that can boast Annika Lee’s solo debut!” “I’d hardly call it a debut, but I appreciate the vote of confidence. Please, call me Nika.” The vampire fangirled a silent squeal and squeezed Annika’s arm. “Our setup isn’t what you’re used to, but we have an amazing FX Manager who will help design your lighting and special effects.” She pointed toward a corner off the back of the stage. “His name is Derick. He’s a shifter. Or at least, I think so. I’ve been around a lot of Weres, especially of late, and Derick’s scent screams dual-natured, though I can’t quite place the species. Still, he’s a yummy slice of heaven on earth.” Yummy? Bette burst out laughing and Nika knew it was from the stunned look on her face. “Oh my God! I meant yummy as in eyecandy! My boyfriend would freak if I fed from another guy.” Nika didn’t know what to react to first. The fact she was even here in the first place or that she was face to face with the reality of vampire life.
Good luck with that, home girl. Too late for a crash course in vampire 101. She gave her head a mental shake and concentrated on the club itself instead. Garage grunge and acid punk set the tone for the place, and Annika glanced around unfazed by the raw feel emanating from all sides. Shadowed nooks peeked from everywhere she turned, and she wondered if that was by design. If the rumors were true, dark corners made it easier for concealed feeding. She exhaled hard. Stop thinking about it already! You knew what you signed up for when you accepted the gig. “Is Derick my daytime contact, then?” Nika asked, redirecting her own thoughts. Bette nodded. “We figured you’d be more comfortable with one of your own. He doesn’t say much and keeps mostly to himself. You know, the strong silent type.” Derick had his back to them, and Annika looked at the man’s broad expanse and inhaled. A trace scent tickled her nose along with the man’s natural musk. Bette was right. There was something at the core of his scent that conjured a sense of cool moss and loamy earth, a rawness that made her mouth water. He was dark haired and chiseled and Annika couldn’t drag her eyes from his muscled
shoulders as he lifted boxes of equipment and heavy speakers from a forklift. “He’s been getting the place ready for your show for days, now. We wanted nothing left to chance,” Bette added. Derick peeled his shirt from his back and wiped his brow with the white cotton. He turned tossing the garment onto a speaker box, giving them a sideways view of his sculpted chest. His torso gleamed with a fine sweat, and Annika’s eyes followed the line of stacked muscles toward the sexy V at his hips, until it disappeared beneath his low-rider jeans. Oh my God. Sex and maleness incarnate. Those were the two words that came directly to mind. Not just from the sheer beauty of his sculpted arms and broad back, but how he moved. His profile was strong, with a carved jaw and the sexy scruff of a day old beard. Annika closed her eyes and inhaled again, only this time expanding her senses. The air around her was ripe with the scent of the secret and forbidden. Heaviness, thick with the essence of concentrated sex crowded her mind, and she gasped at the hungry feel. Urgency pulsed through her body, stronger than she’d ever felt
and her panties dampened at the unexpected throb in her nether regions. Her body tingled with immediate need and she swallowed hard against the effect, curling her fingers into her palms. Ariel was right, again. It had been too long. She opened her eyes as Derick turned, only this time her breath caught for a different reason. A tattoo as clear as day on his left bicep. Three crowned lions. Annika had seen that exact ink on Jesse’s arm. It was the LaFont crest. Their mark. A rite of passage branded into their skin when they first phased. No fucking way. Her eyes narrowed and she unconsciously took a step closer. It had to be a coincidence. LaFont features were distinctive, light-haired and blue-eyed. Nothing like this tall, dark, delicious man standing thirty yards away. Bette dipped her chin, her lips curling in a close-mouthed grin. “You’re feeling him, aren’t you? She chuckled. “Say the word, honey, and it’s a done deal.” Annika ignored the question along with Bette’s undead eyes dilating at the scent of her knee-jerk arousal. Yeah, I’d like to feel him and then some. She squashed the thought. She was here to do a job and nothing more.
The pretty vampire didn’t push the issue, instead pointed toward a short set of stairs leading to a private bar. “The VIP section.” Bette swung one hand wide as they stepped onto the bar’s carpeted floor. The club was empty with only scattered wait-staff stocking the bar and cleaning the concrete dance floor. “This is where you’ll be between sets. We don’t want you overwhelmed. Beyond the ropes are our backrooms, but whether you visit them or not and with whom, is entirely at your discretion.” She paused as if waiting for a reaction. “In the past, entrance to the backrooms was by invitation only. Vampire invitation. However, Weres and shifters were recently granted an all access pass, although there are a few rooms still too raw for daylighters.” Nika blinked, angling her head. “I’m sorry, did you say daylighters?” “A daylighter is what vampires call any supernatural not confined to the night,” Bette replied, “but it mostly refers to shifters and Weres. My boyfriend hates the term.” Annika gawked at her. “Your boyfriend is a shifter?” “A Were, actually.” Bette nodded. “Mixed relationships aren’t exactly mainstream, but old
taboos are lifting. In fact, it’s how I got them to approve your performance.” Annika rubbed her arms. There was something about this place that made her shiver, and it wasn’t the pretty vampire standing beside her. She glanced past her shoulder to Derick. The vampire grinned, giving Nika a knowing nudge. “The moon’s pull is strong in the city. Don’t fight it, Annika. I can smell its effect on your body already, and lingering scents from our backrooms don’t help. This place reeks of sex for those of us with hyped senses. If you’re not planning to hook up, I’d take a hard run in the park or you’ll be in knots by the time you take the stage.” Annika swallowing hard again, her eyes darting back from Derick. “My boyfriend says a hard run is what shifters do to help take the edge off when sex is off the table.” Bette shrugged. “Personally, I like it on the table or the floor or anywhere I can sink my teeth into that wolf of mine.” Nika’s eyes widened. If Derick was a LaFont, then he had to be a wolf. Did that mean Bette and he were—? “Are you…I mean…Derick and you…is he…” she stuttered, feeling her cheeks burn. Bette burst out laughing. “Me and Mr. TalksTo-No-One? Not a chance, babe. I like my men hard, but that one is too hard, and I don’t mean in
the way I like. He’s complicated. Moody and dark. Like he’s running from something, and to be honest, I get enough of that brooding crap from my own kind.” The vampire paused, sparing a glance at Derick, too. “Then again, if that’s what turns you on, go for it, girl. No questions asked.” Annika didn’t say a word, and Bette laughed it off with a quick wave. “Okay, back to business, then. Your agent wants us to keep you under wraps until the show, so maybe it’s best for you to stay here.” “Here? In the club?” Nika asked. “No. At Les Sanctuaire. Ariel has you booked into The Benjamin Hotel on 33rd Street, but personally, I think you’d be happier here. I had accommodations readied for you, just in case. Of course, you’re totally free to come and go as you please.” “Les Sanctuaire?” Nika repeated in perfect Cajun French. Bette grinned. “Our lair, and where visiting vampires rest during the day.” “I don’t know, Bette. Taboos might be lifting, but not fast enough. You’re a fan, but I’m not so sure the other residents will share your enthusiasm. No offense, but I wouldn’t want to unknowingly cross paths with someone whose more interested in my blood than my music.”
Bette shook her head, adamant. “I would never put you anywhere near the residents. You’ll have the entire east wing to yourself. The only other person who shares that side of the building is Derick. Since the sun rises on that side of the building, I guarantee no one will bother you.” “I don’t know.” Nika hesitated, but she couldn’t say no to the hopeful look on Bette’s face. “Okay, I’ll give it a try. Once the house lights come up I’m going to need a fortress to keep the paparazzi at bay, and something tells me this place is exactly what the doctor ordered.” Bette grinned, nodding. “No one gets into our lair without permission, and our bouncers know the consequences for breaking the rules.” Movement across the staging area caught her eye and she turned watching Derick shrug back into his shirt. “I’ll have to get my things from the…uhm…the hotel.” “No need,” Bette’s eyes followed hers. “I can arrange whatever you need.” She nudged Nika’s elbow. “And I do mean whatever.” Nika nodded absently, her eyes still on Derick’s broad back. “Will I see you later, then?” “Absolutely.” Bette beamed not knowing if the question was directed at her or the gorgeous man’s fine ass.
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About the Author
Marianne Morea was born and raised in New York. Inspired by the dichotomies that define ‘the city that never sleeps’, she began her career after college as a budding journalist. Later, earning a MFA, from The School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, she moved on to the graphic arts. But it was her lifelong love affair with words, and the fantasies and ‘what ifs’ they stir, that finally brought her back to writing.
Visit Marianne at her website: http://www.mariannemorea.com
If you enjoyed the story, please feel free to email me. Reviews are always welcome on Amazon and Goodreads!