Way back in late February, before the coming of the plague (part two, at least) and the second Bayou novel deadline, I ran the first part of the original opening to ELYSIAN FIELDS. If you missed it or forgot what it was about, you can find it here.
And, as promised, here is the rest… DJ has come back from dinner with Jake in New Iberia and goes to his room to talk to him about how it’s okay for them to just be friends, and she finds a half-empty bottle of whiskey in his bag. He’d been drinking heavily during dinner…
When Jake came out of the bathroom and spotted me holding the bottle, his face registered a flicker of surprise before turning to stone. He’d ditched the flannel shirt, and his upper body was still golden-skinned from the summer, although more heavily muscled than I remembered from his pre-loup-garou days. His aggressive strain of lycanthropy had also healed the mangled leg the Navy surgeons hadn’t been able to repair.
“Either pour yourself a drink or put down the bottle and go back to your room, DJ.”
Not happening. Alex and I had spent three years tiptoeing around Jake, trying to cut him slack, making excuses. Especially me. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to go through your stuff—the bottle fell out when I sat down. I thought we could watch…”—I faltered as he tracked my movement away from the bed, or maybe I was imagining predatory traits where none were there—“TV or something.”
He took the bottle from my hand and unscrewed the top in a practiced twist. His Adam’s apple moved up and down as he knocked back enough to have burned a furrow in my esophagus. He closed his eyes and almost smiled.
“You want some?” He held the open bottle toward me. More than twelve hours had passed since my morning grounding ritual, and my mojo bag of calming herbs sat in my room. Nothing separated my empathic sensibilities from Jake’s hot anger. He wasn’t even going to try lying to me anymore about how well he was handling things. God, I feared him, and I feared for him.
I resisted the urge to take a step backward. I’d always believed Jake would never hurt me, but a few grains of sand had been falling from the hourglass of doubt for the past couple of months. Today, they’d sped to a fast trickle.
I spoke slowly, as much to calm myself as to avoid igniting the powder keg standing in front of me. “Jake, talk to me.” I needed to temper his anger. Be supportive. Not be judgmental. “I can’t pretend to know how you feel but we—”
“You’re right. You know jack shit about what I’m dealing with. Don’t pretend you can help me and don’t give me that look—the one on your face right now. The poor-bastard-what-are-we-gonna-do-about-Jake expression. I’m sick of it.” He took another drink, set the bottle on the dresser with a thud, and stared down at it for a moment before he turned back to me. The room’s soft light bounced at odd refractions from his irises. If I didn’t figure out a way to calm him down, he’d shift.
My heart pounded and sped up, and my breath hitched when Jake’s nostrils flared. Fear would draw his wolf, and my head knew that. My heart was running to fast to listen.
He reached out to rest a hand on my shoulder. “I see through you, sunshine.”
“What do you mean?” My voice stayed soft and steady, but I’d never wanted to run from anything more in my life. Driven by adrenaline, my magic began building inside me, wanting release. A Green Congress wizard, I possessed limited physical magic—fighting belonged to the Red Congress warrior class. I had a little from my father, but not enough to defend myself against a loup-garou.
He pulled his hand away and began to pace in sharp-turned strides. “You string me along, thinking you can save me, turn me into what you want me to be. You pretend you’re broken up about me but it’s all about you and Alex. You use me to keep each other at a distance. You try to ease your own guilt. Well, you know what?”
No, he was wrong. “I care about you, Jake. I—” My mind raced through things I might say, ways I might stop this before it snowballed.
“Shut the hell up, DJ.” He didn’t yell the words. He didn’t need to. The silkiness in his voice glided across my skin like an ice cube.
I flinched and clamped my mouth shut, swallowing hard as he slid his hand down my arm and pulled me against him, pain from jostled ribs sending my heart into a quick staccato.
“Time for a shot of reality, sunshine. Here’s how things stand.” He bent his head toward me, running his lips along my jawline until his mouth rested above my ear. I froze, sure he sensed the terror seeping from my pores. “I love to run on four legs through the woods.” His words, carried on hot breath sweet with whiskey, wafted across my jaw. “I love the drumming throat of some dying, frantic thing between my teeth.” He shifted his mouth and nipped lightly at the skin above the artery in my neck that was thundering so hard I heard it inside my head. He didn’t break skin. If he didn’t break skin, we were still okay.
“Enough, Jake. We can talk about this later. You’ve made your point.” My voice shook. No point in pretending not to be scared. We’d had one close call a few weeks ago, but within the relative safety of his apartment over the crowded Gator. We were isolated out here.
His grip around my waist tightened. “I drink, sunshine, because whiskey dulls the anger. Whiskey helps me be the nice little soldier you and Alex expect.”
He nuzzled my neck, gripping me against him, and I couldn’t contain my magic any longer. I lost control as fear propelled a burst of energy into him—not much, not enough to hurt. I’d hit him once or twice before—a small jolt that had surprised the wolf into backing away. Maybe, I hoped to God, it would work again.
Jake jerked when my energy struck him, but didn’t let me go. His body shook—not with rage, but with laughter. “You’ll have to do better this time, sweetheart. You wanted me to accept the wolf. Well, this is me, accepting.”
His laughter turned into a moan when he kissed me, hard, urgent. I push at him, dug my nails into his hands, his neck. He only clenched me more tightly.
“Your heart is pounding so hard, it echoes inside me.” His voice was a rough whisper against my throat.
His excitement and anticipation—and hunger—threatened to overwhelm my ability to filter his emotions from mine. If that happened, I’d lose the will to fight him and we’d never come back from it.
“I’m sorry, Jake. I’m so, so sorry, but I have to do this.” I rested my palm against his cheek, unprotected and vulnerable, and for the first time in my life sent every ounce of physical magic I had directly into another person and prayed it wouldn’t kill him.
Snarling, he jerked away with such force his teeth, longer and sharper with him so close to shifting, scissored along my left forearm.
We both stilled, a moment carved in time. Such a small scratch, only three or four inches long. Not deep enough to need stitches, but deep enough for the blood to well up and start a slow drip down my arm and onto the hardwood floor. Deep enough for a little loup-garou DNA to mingle with my own. Deep enough to change my life forever.
“I’m fine.” I grabbed a tissue from a box on the dresser next to that damned bottle of bourbon. My whole body shook as I dabbed at the blood.
Jake hadn’t spoken. When I looked up at him, his eyes were wide and locked on my arm. A combination of terror and arousal roiled within him. The blood called to him, and he wanted to give in.
Jake shook his head, shuddered, and shoved me onto the bed. Ignoring the scream of pain from my ribs, I scrambled away from him.
He wasn’t focused on me, but on his overnight bag. He crammed the contents back inside and closed it, the slide of the zipper filling the silence. Jake paused to stare at me one long, soul-cracking second before he turned and walked out.
The sounds ticked past me, abnormally loud. His truck door opened, slammed. The engine stuttered and hummed. The tires squealed on their way out of the parking lot.
My breath turned to a sob as he left me alone with the fallout.
The crack in the plaster ceiling began next to the base of the light fixture, and spiderwebbed a path to the corner of the room. I studied the lightning-bolt pattern, wondering how much pressure would be needed before the crack became a crevice and the whole ceiling came tumbling down on some unsuspecting fool’s head.
I had no idea how long I’d laid on the bed in Jake’s half of the cabin, staring at the potential ceiling disaster hanging over me. The symbolism didn’t escape me.
Finally, I rolled to my feet, clutched my ribs, and focused on that stupid bottle of Four Roses—ironically, the only thing besides me Jake had left behind. I took a sip, coughed at the burn, and took another. Then I walked to the sink, used the rest of the bourbon to clean the scratch on my arm, and tossed the empty bottle in the trash.
Alcohol wouldn’t kill the loup-garou virus, but the pain it caused on the open wound awoke my brain from its fugue. No point in freaking out; too many variables were unknown. When I had answers, I’d panic.
I had no idea if a wizard had ever become loup-garou. A natural shapeshifter, Alex was immune—he’d been attacked by the same loup-garou as Jake. Ditto for Jean Lafitte. If shapeshifters and the Historical Undead were immune, perhaps wizards were, too. Otherwise…
My mind kept straying. How it might feel to change form. Whether the Elders would consider me too dangerous to live. They’d taken a chance on Jake because he’d been human—and because Alex pled his case and agreed to be held responsible for his cousin’s actions, something of which Jake was unaware. Take my elven skills, which already made the Elders nervous, and make me a rogue wolf shifter who couldn’t control her emotions and—worse—absorbed the negative emotions of others? They’d either turn me into a weapon or put me down like a rabid stray.
I wanted to worry about Jake, to care where he’d gone or how this would tear him apart. I wanted to care that he was driving drunk and upset and might wrap his shiny blue truck around a live oak. On some level I made note of those things, but right now I felt all my fretting over Jake the last few years had been wasted time. We’d still come to this.
Returning to my room, I closed the adjoining door behind me with a solid click. Practical things needed to be dealt with before the night got any later. First, I found a local phone book and reserved a car rental for tomorrow morning. Jake might come back, but if he didn’t I’d take a cab to the rental place and drive back to New Orleans.
The elven staff lay on the bed, and I curled up with it underneath the old-fashioned patchwork quilt that doubled as a bedspread. My muscles ached from the strain of using so much physical magic. I needed sleep, but my brain kept gnawing over what had happened.
I wondered whether those aching mucles were tired from magic or because my body had already begun its metamorphosis, each cell changing shape and character in preparation for the next full moon.
I wondered when the next full moon would fall—how long I had if I’d been infected.
I wondered what in the world I’d tell Alex, and how much trouble we’d be in. Our misguided attempts to overprotect Jake might have put all of us in jeopardy.
* * *
In my dream, a man hammered on a wooden door. And yelled. He needed a big serving of shut-the-hell-up.
I cracked one eye open. The cottage door vibrated from the force of what had to be a battering ram pounding against the other side. Good Lord. I didn’t smell smoke, so somebody better be dying.
Groaning, I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Even my freaking eyeballs hurt. Then the horror came back to me. What the hell was I going to do?
Wham! The windows rattled this time, and the blow sounded more like a kick than a knock. “DJ. Open it or the door’s coming down.”
The loud, angry voice with a tinge of frantic didn’t belong to Jake. I so did not want to talk to Alex yet, but he wasn’t the type to give up and go away.
“Wait—I’m coming!” Sheesh. Did shapeshifter genes come with an extra few strands of impatience at—I glanced at my watch—three a.m.? “What are you doing h—”
Alex Warin filled up the doorway, then pushed past me like a starving bear after a supply of picnic food.
He looked around the room, stuck his head in the closet, jerked open the door into Jake’s side of the double, and disappeared. I peeked into the parking lot. Alex’s shiny new supercharged Range Rover sat at an odd angle in front of my door. No sign of Jake.
Well, this should be entertaining. Or not.
I tugged the sleeves of my rumpled sweater down to cover my left arm and waited for my former co-sentinel and sometimes best friend—and possibly more, according to Jake—to finish his manly tossing of the rental cottage.
Alex finally came back into my room and crossed his arms over his chest. A suspicious frown etched a little worry line between his eyebrows, and his unkempt dark hair—always on the shaggy side—made me suspect he’d run his hands through it the entire drive from New Orleans. He had the makings of a scruffy 3 a.m. shadow, which pushed my sexy-as-hell buttons. He pinned me with a decidedly unsexy glare. “Well?”
Great. He’d gone into monosyllabic caveman mode. Being appointed head of the DDT seemed to be bringing back the old macho traits from Alex’s enforcer days, one of the Elders’ elite cleanup crew, which basically translates as assassin. It had taken me three years to train him into having conversations in complete sentences. Lately, he’d been backsliding.
“Well, what? What are you doing here?”
Oookay. Time to tread carefully. “What did Jake say, exactly?”
“Not a damned thing. ‘Go get DJ. Get her tonight.’ Nothing more. I expected you to be up to your ass in weregators.” Alex circled me like the picnic food had suddenly appeared on my head. Those long-lashed, dark brown eyes that could simmer like melted chocolate hardened into squinty black orbs as he gave me a once-over.
I propped my hands on my hips and let him look. “Like what you see?”
He stopped in front of me, close enough for the heat from his big body to seep through my thin sweater. At six-three and at least 240 of solid muscle, he had ample height and lack of manners to try and intimidate me with his size. It never worked, but that didn’t keep him from an obligatory attempt.
I kept a grip on the bottom of my sweater sleeve. Since Jake hadn’t come clean, Alex wasn’t going to find this scratch on my arm until I figured out what to tell him. I wouldn’t lie, but truth can be couched in creativity.
“Actually, I do like what I see.” He came to a stop in front of me and rested his hands on my waist, tugging me toward him.
Big jerk thought a little flirting would turn me into a blithering idiot. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck yesterday. “Good to know. You couldn’t have expressed your admiration when I got back to New Orleans? Do you realize what time it is?”
He smiled down at me, a dark wave of hair curled over one eye, and I wanted to sigh like a heroine in a bad romance novel. Maybe I had fallen off the turnip truck and Jake had been right. Had I used him as a wedge between me and Alex, to avoid facing up to whatever kept threatening to happen between us?
“Since Jake ran off and left you, we might take advantage some alone-time, right?” He angled his head to kiss me, and I squinted at him. Alex was many things, but not mercurial. He didn’t go in a heartbeat from caveman to Casanova. He had a strategy; I just hadn’t figured out how he’d play it.
I kept my hands at my side when he brushed my lips with his, but didn’t step back fast enough to escape when his fingers left my waist and snaked out to grab my wrists.
He shoved up the left sleeve of my sweater before I could say “traitor.”
“Not deep,” he muttered, running his fingers along the scratch. “That damned merman…” His voice trailed off, and he lifted my arm to his nose. My efforts to pull away were as effective as trying to extract a stick from dried cement. He dropped his head and touched his tongue to the cut.
“Stop that—it’s gross. Seriously.” I twisted my arm out of his grasp, ready to give him a lecture about canine behavior when he wasn’t in his pony-dog shifted form. Damned shapeshifters and weres. They can scent anything—it’s a freaking invasion of privacy. I needed to start bathing in cheap perfume. Might make me reek like a Friday night slut, but having a good shifter repellant would be worth the nausea factor.
Unless I became a shifter myself. The thought left me breathless, and Alex picked up on that, too.
His expression destroyed any further smartassery. The shaky network of defenses I’d built around myself in the hours since Jake walked out also crumbled. Alex’s face blanched beneath the remains of his summer tan, and his eyes widened.
Nothing scared Alex Warin. Ever.
“I’m going to kill the son of a bitch.” His voice shook, and his features morphed from fear to fury with the force of cat five hurricane. Maybe he was more mercurial than I’d thought.
“Are you going to kill him, Alex?” I sighed and sat on the edge of the bed, my earlier exhaustion back in triplicate, my ribs throbbing. “Consider what you’re saying and whether you mean it because we have to be careful. Jake’s life is at risk. Your career is at risk. My…well, my everything was at risk.” My mainstreamed job for human purposes was risk-management consultant for Tulane University. And the ironies kept on coming.
Alex blew out a breath and sat next to me. “Well, shit.”
Side by side, we wallowed in our individual pits of hell for a few minutes before he finally said, “Better tell me what happened. Everything.”
I spilled it, omitting Jake’s assessment that both Alex and I had used him to keep from facing how we felt about each other. I needed to ponder that one a while. “Is he right about us putting too much pressure on him?” I asked, then answered my own question. “He is right. I thought if I pushed hard enough, believed hard enough, tried hard enough—I could make him into the man he was before the loup-garou attack.”
I wiped the heels of my palms across my cheeks, scrubbing away a few hot tears. I would not sit here and cry. Self-pity wouldn’t help me figure out what to do.
Pack. Keep busy. I got up and began gathering toiletries from the small dressing table off the main room of the cabin. Alex appeared behind me, and we locked eyes in the big mirror spanning the wall above the sink. “Wish we could stay here a couple of days and decide what to do,” he said. “But we’ve got another problem.”
Alex and I left New Iberia at 4 a.m., with 110 miles of interstate between us and New Orleans. We didn’t talk about Jake except to agree neither of us had a clue where he might be. We held the other stuff—doubts, fears, worries—in our hearts. My possible impending furpocalpyse also hadn’t been mentioned, but Alex was freaked. His wonky shapeshifter emotions buzzed all over the SUV, and in normal times he had enough control to keep his feelings locked behind a mental firewall my empathic skills couldn’t hack.
The new problem proved a welcome distraction. The ax attacks in the French Quarter had tilted to the not-so-normal side of the investigative scale.
Alex adjusted the truck’s temperature somewhere between nippy and igloo. The chill bumps spreading along my skin gave me odd comfort. Surely if I were turning into a fur-wizard, I’d be as hot-natured as Alex and Jake.
“How’d you figure out the attacks were preternatural?” I pulled a black and gold Saints throw from his backseat and draped it around my shoulders. My ribs protested every movement.
“At first, a hunch.” He dropped the speed as we approached Baton Rouge. “Had a late dinner with Ken Hachette, and he talked about the NOPD investigation. Nothing stolen, no motive. The vics, who’d never met, said the guy with the ax was dressed like an actor from an old movie. Same ax model, too—the guy left one behind at each crime scene.”
I wondered if Ken had heard from Jake. An NOPD homicide detective Alex worked with on occasion in his mainstreamed job with the FBI, Ken served in Jake’s Marine unit in Afghanistan. They’d also co-owned the Green Gator until Jake bought him out.
“Maybe the ax guy is just some dude with a fashion fetish for vintage clothes. Doesn’t scream ‘prete’ to me.” I got hot and threw off the blanket as we drove over the big Mississippi River bridge in downtown Baton Rouge. I’d never seen the wide arch without bumper-to-bumper traffic, and the overhead lights on the intricate lace of steel-span webbing flew past in a blur of vapor trails.
“Nope. I took my old tracker to the crime scene after I left the restaurant, and picked up some prete energy. Faded, but there.”
Damn. So much for a quiet glide to Thanksgiving. Now we had an ax-attacker with fashion issues to add to my full-moon vigil.
I tried to focus on the crimes. “If the attacker is a prete in old-fashioned clothes, it’s probably one of the Historical Undead. I happen to know their self-proclaimed leader quite well.”
“Yeah, too well.” Alex floored the car once we moved east of Baton Rouge. “I’d like to have just one case where Jean Lafitte doesn’t have to get involved.”
Alex considered the pirate an immoral, opportunistic thief; Jean thought Alex a murderous bully. Most of their animosity stemmed from their only common interest—namely, me. During their most macho moments, which occurred too often, both considered me their personal property.
I might have encouraged their rivalry a bit. A girl needs a hobby.
We drove the rest of the way in silence, and by the time Alex pulled the car into the small parking area behind our side-by-side houses in Uptown New Orleans, a sliver of golden sun peeked through the branches of the live oaks. I’d bought my house, with Gerry’s help, when I got my sentinel’s license—an 1890s camelback with gingerbread trim, a broad front porch, and lots of original wood. Like the other houses in this part of town, built on higher ground near the river, the floodwaters of Katrina had spared it.
“You okay?” He reached out and squeezed my hand. “Want me to come in?”
“No, I’m just exhausted and need to sleep.” I climbed out of the car and retrieved my overnighter and the elven staff from the back. “Let me know if Jake calls?”
A grumble that might have been a yes in Caveman was the only answer I got.
So, there you go! Honestly, I still like this opening better than the one that ran in the final version of the book, probably just because it was the way I envisioned it. The finished opening has DJ and Jake examining a crime scene with NOPD detective Ken in the French Quarter, then walking back to the Green Gator, which is where DJ is infected with the loup garou virus. I did use some of the part where Alex figures it out in the final version, only it takes place at DJ’s house.
Why was I asked to change it? Just one of those editorial things. I had wanted to open with DJ making sure the merpeople from River Road were settled in a western parish to tie the books together, but my editor didn’t see any point in bringing these new locations into the book since we weren’t going to revisit them. Editorially, some battles I will fight and some I won’t. I didn’t think changing the opening really changed my overall vision for the book and didn’t impact the story arc, so I rewrote it. It’s a give-and-take process.
Now….did you win a book this week? I’m WOEFULLY behind on book mailings so don’t think I’ve forgotten you if you’ve won anything since January and haven’t gotten it. I finally got started last week and mailed out nine books. I’m trying to get three a day out, so be patient 🙂
This week’s winners are all Readers Choice winners as I tried to play catchup on the March releases. What that means is that you can pick the book you chose originally or can pick another book–any book, any format, as long as it’s US$15 or less. Sorry, I know that cuts out some of the expensive new hardcovers but since I pay for these out of my own pocket, I have to put some limits on them. Because, believe me, I don’t make enough from my books to pay for this blog, much less live on. [Insert plea to buy a copy of WILD MAN’S CURSE! — LOL.]
Anyway, if you see your name, please email me at the contact tab at the top or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Let me know the book you’d like (a link is even better and will speed things up):
Random.org has deemed that:
CARINA OLSEN won the Readers Choice part 1, and she said she’d decide on her book after she won–let me know!
JANIE MCGAUGH won the Readers Choice part 2, and she chose Fire Touched by Patricia Briggs.
ERIN F won the Readers Choice part 3, and she chose Playing the Witch’s Game (Keeper of the Veil #3) by Zoe Forward.
ANCA B won the Readers Choice part 4, and she chose Catacombs by Liz Schulte.
Remember, winners, you can change your mind and pick a different book!
And stop by tomorrow for a brand new Readers Choice giveaway!