Nick Gautier’s day just keeps getting better and better. Yeah, he survived the zombie attacks, only to wake up and find himself enslaved to a world of shapeshifters and demons out to claim his soul.
His new principal thinks he’s even more of a hoodlum than the last one, his coach is trying to recruit him to things he can’t even mention and the girl he’s not seeing, but is, has secrets that terrify him.
But more than that, he’s being groomed by the darkest of powers and if he doesn’t learn how to raise the dead by the end of the week, he will become one of them…
Also Available as an audiobook from Macmillan Audio!
They say when you’re about to die, you see your entire life flash before your eyes.
The only thing Nick Gautier could see flashing was Kyrian Hunter’s vampire fangs. That horrifying sight froze him in place on the elegant mahogany staircase at the front of Kyrian’s sprawling antebellum mansion.
I’m going to die…
Yeah, since he’d attempted to go to school about twenty-two hours ago and had found out his principal had been eaten by a zombie, everything and its brother had been after him.
Now his friggin boss was a vampire.
It figured. So much for his paycheck, unless the devil could cash it he’d never see a nickle out of it.
Would this day ever end?
Dude, right now, you’re the one who’s about to end.
That thought finally shattered the terrified fog in his head that had held him immobile.
<emrun, dude,=”” run!<=”” em=””>
He couldn’t go downstairs cause that was where Kyrian stood. The only place to run was upstairs, after his mother who’d already gone into the bedroom Kyrian had loaned them for the night- she was completely oblivious to the fact that they were in mortal danger and that their blood was about to be drained. He spun around to warn her.
Wait, my gluteus maximus. Vampire was shy a few quarts of blood if he thought Nick had any intention of not going Caspar on him.
I’m too young, too smart and too good-looking to die.
Yeah, and then some. They needed him to improve the gene pool. Not to mention, at fourteen he hadn’t even had his first date yet. He’d only just, this night, had his first kiss. He should have recognized that alone as a sign that the apocalypse was coming and that his death was imminent.
As he neared the top of the stairs, Kyrian jumped straight up from the floor twenty feet below and flipped over the shiny railing to land gracefully in front of him and cut off his escape. Kyrian’s black eyes flashed in the shadows. Dressed all in black and at over six feet in height, Kyrian made a deadly, impressive sight even with his boyish blond curls.
There was no way to get past him.
Nick skidded to a halt. What should he do now? His mom was in a bedroom a few feet behind Kyrian. He’d yell for her, but the last thing he wanted was for Kyrian to kill her too. Maybe if he kept quiet, Kyrian would only drain him.
“It’s not what you think, Nick.” Yeah, right. “I think you’re a bloodsucking demon vampire who’s going to kill me, that’s what I think.”
Before he could so much as blink, Kyrian reached out and grabbed his neck with some kind of Vulcan death grip. He wanted to fight, but he was as helpless as a pup being held by the scruff. With the inhuman strength you’d expect from the undead, Kyrian hauled Nick past his mother’s temporary bedroom and into Kyrian’s upstairs office.
As in the rest of the house, the floor-to-ceiling curtains were drawn shut to protect against the dawning sun-something that should have clued Nick in the first moment he stepped into the mansion. The dark wood of the desk blended in seamlessly with the dark green walls. Without breaking stride, Kyrian flung Nick into a dark burgundy leather chair.
When he started to run, Kyrian slammed him back into it. “Stop a minute and listen. I know I’m asking the impossible from you, but for once in your life, shut your mouth and open your ears.”
“I’m not the one talking.”
Kyrian snarled at him. “Don’t get smart with me.”
“You want me stupid?”
Nick held his hands up. “Fine, just don’t eat my mom, okay? She’s had a bad enough life without becoming the Bride of Dracula.”
“I don’t drink blood.”
He arched a brow at that. “Yeah, right.”
“Yeah, right. I don’t. I’m not a vampire.”
This from the one with the freaky long canines? “Then what’s with your peculiar dental problem, huh? And don’t even try to tell me they’re fake, Mr. Armani suits and fancy car, ’cause you ain’t the type to have false ones and all that also says you have the money to fix them if you wanted to. Not to mention the fact you don’t go out in daylight, and how did you ninja-flip up the stairs just now if you’re not one of the undead?”
“And I’m gone.” Nick tried to escape, and again, Kyrian body-slammed him into the chair hard enough to get his attention.
“You know about Acheron and you accepted him. Why don’t you trust me?”
Acheron Parthenopaeus was a giant immortal… something. But even so, he’d been nothing other than nice to Nick and his mom. And most importantly… “He don’t got no fangs.”
“Yes, he does. He’s just better at hiding his than I am mine. He’s also my boss.”
Nick would argue he was full of cow manure, but that explanation actually made sense in a weird way. Ash was over eleven thousand years old and had seemed a peculiar friend for Kyrian to have. But if the immortal giant was Kyrian’s boss…
That explained it.
Still, Nick wasn’t a fool and he accepted nothing at face value. For all he knew, Kyrian was lying his fangs off. “What line of work are you in?”
“Like saving punk kids getting beat to death by people who’re supposed to be their friends?” I.e. me getting shot by Alan and stomped into the ground by Tyree and Mike a couple of weeks ago. That had been how the two of them had met and led to his working part time for Kyrian after school.
Kyrian inclined his head to him. “Exactly.”
Nick relaxed a degree as he reminded himself how much he owed Kyrian. But for Kyrian, he’d be dead right now. “So you’re not going to attack my mother or suck my blood?”
“Good gods, no. I don’t need the indigestion. You’ve caused me enough of a headache for one night. I don’t need any more.”
Nick sat in Kyrian’s chair, staring up at him. If Kyrian wanted to kill him, he’d had plenty of opportunities. Instead, he’d protected both Nick and his mother and allowed them to spend the night in his mansion.
“If you want to know the correct term for me, I’m a Dark-Hunter.”
Nick digested that term slowly. “Which means what? You hunt darkness?”
“Yes, Nick. That’s exactly what I do. There’s just not enough of it.” Now there was some sarcasm you could cut with a knife.
Nick wasn’t amused by it. “So are you going to explain it or not?”
“We’re immortal warriors who sold our souls to the goddess Artemis. For her, we fight and protect humanity from whatever stalks the night, trying to prey on them. For the most part that means we track and slay Daimons.”
“To put it in terms you can relate to, they’re vampires who live on human souls. Instead of blood, they take your soul into their body, and once it’s there, it starts to wither and die. We have to kill the Daimon before the soul is completely used up.”
“I don’t understand. Why take souls?”
Kyrian shrugged. “It’s what nourishes them. They have to keep a living soul in them or they die.”
That was harsh. For them and especially for the person they killed to get it.
“How do they take souls?” Nick asked.
“No idea. I asked Acheron that question once and he refused to answer. He’s good at that.”
“So did he teach that to you too?”
Kyrian smiled, not the tight-lipped smiles of the past, this was a full blown one that showed off his fangs. “He did indeed.”
“I give you an A-plus then.”
Kyrian cocked his head, watching him as if waiting for Nick to run again. “Are we good?”
Nick considered it. He should probably be terrified and bolting for the door, but Kyrian had been there with him, fighting zombies and protecting his friends tonight. He’d opened his house to Nick’s mom.
He seemed okay…
You can trust him. For the first time, Nick knew who that weird deep voice in his head belonged to.
Ambrose-his whacked out uncle who swore he was here to help him. Strange, everyone kept claiming that. But-
They both jumped at the sound of Nick’s mom in the hallway, calling his name.
Kyrian went to the door and opened it. “We’re in here, Mrs. Gautier.”
Stepping into the room, she looked around suspiciously as if she expected to catch them doing something illegal, unethical or unnatural. Tiny, petite and beautiful with bright blue eyes, his mom had always reminded him of an angel, especially when she wasn’t wearing makeup-something he hated on her. Her blond hair was rumpled and she was dressed in a black t-shirt that went all the way to her knees. It looked like Kyrian had loaned it to her to sleep in. At twenty-eight, she was really young to have a kid his age. But that had never mattered. It’d always been the two of them against a hostile world.
“Nick? Is everything okay?”
“It’s all good, Mom.”
She gave Kyrian an arch stare that said she didn’t believe his answer. “You sure, boo?”
“Absolutely. Mr. Hunter was just telling me that I have tomorrow off since I worked so late tonight. Isn’t that right, Mr. Hunter?”
There was an amused gleam in his eyes as he realized Nick had manipulated the situation to his advantage. “Yes, that’s correct.”
“Couldn’t you have told him that outside?”
Kyrian pressed his lips together in an effort not to smile and expose his teeth. “Nick came in here to get online and play. I was just telling him he needed to go on to bed.”
Oh the rat…
Pulling the parental censorship card? That was just rude. Unconscionable. If Nick weren’t the victim, he’d applaud the quick thinking. But the last thing he needed was for his mom to have yet another reason to ground him.
She leveled an angry glare at him. “Nicky…”
Nick held his arm up in surrender. “Mom-”
”Don’t you ‘Mom’ me, boy. I can’t believe you’d do this when you know better. Get your butt in bed. Right now. March!”
Rising from his chair, Nick growled low in his throat and cast a warning glare at Kyrian. He’d get him…
Kyrian let out an evil closed lipped laugh. “I’ll show you to your room.”
His mom was having none of that as she blocked the doorway. “He can sleep in my room. With me.”
Kyrian released a tired sigh. “I wondered where Nick got his suspicious nature from. You’ve taught him well.”
His mom smoothed a stray piece of blond hair back from her face and tucked it in behind her left ear. “Yeah, well, I’ve seen the ugly side of people too many times. No offense to you, Mr. Hunter.”
“I assure you, I’ve seen an even uglier side of them than you have. Many times, myself. Call me Kyrian, please.”
That seemed to embarrass her. She gestured to Nick. “Come on, babe. The sun’s already up. You need to get some sleep. You’re still getting over that gunshot wound.”
What she didn’t know was that it was healed courtesy of some powers he didn’t want her to know about. If she did, with his luck, she’d report him to the authorities and he’d end up naked in a lab somewhere as an experiment. “Do I have to go to school?”
“Since it starts in less than two hours, no.”
“It won’t be open tomorrow anyway,” Kyrian said, drawing their attention back to him. “The police are still investigating it.”
His mom frowned. “How do you know?”
“I talked to one of Nick’s teachers.”
“Which one?” Nick was dying to know who on the faculty to avoid for fear of them ratting him out to his fanged employer.
Great. Just great. She’d never thought much of him anyway. She was one of the lead faculty members who wanted him expelled. But there was nothing he could do about that tonight.
Nick yawned as his exhaustion caught up with him.
His mom tsked. “See how tired you are?”
He hated when his mom asked stupid questions. It took all his restraint not to smart off. But he’d already skated past one restriction tonight. No need to court another one.
So minding his tongue, he followed her back to their room. Like Kyrian’s office, it was huge. Bigger than their entire itty-bitty condo, which he loathed. And it had a king-sized bed so his mom wouldn’t kick him in her sleep. She spun around in bed like a rotisserie chicken and he despised anytime they had to share sleeping space.
But the four-poster bed looked like it could easily hold a family of ten in it. The neatest part to him was that the blue and gold comforter matched the wallpaper. Even the gold-foil-looking stuff, which was really cool on the walls. He’d only seen that on TV shows…and horror movies.
His mom turned to him. “How’s your arm doing? You need anymore medicine?”
Nick had to force himself not to react to her question. He’d already forgotten about that again. Crap. He better remember; otherwise, everyone would want to know how he healed it so fast.
“Good. Now hit the sheets.”
Nick went to the other side and slid in. The moment he was settled, she pulled him against her and started playing in his short brown hair. He cringed and squirmed, trying to escape her. Unfortunately, she was like quicksand. Once you were dumb enough to get into its reach, it was over. “Ma! What are you doing?”
“Can’t I hold you?”
He screwed his face up in distaste at the mere thought of it. “I don’t know why you worry about Mr. Hunter when you’re the one who’s always sexually harassing me, Mom. Gah, can’t I even go to sleep without you groping me?”
She popped him on the butt. Not hard enough to hurt. Just enough to get his attention. “Stop saying that. Showing my baby affection with a hug is not sexual harassment. You know there are a lot of moms out there who have no sense of maternal instinct at all.” Those who threw their kids out of the house and into the gutter because of a single mistake, like keeping a baby they didn’t want her to. His mom didn’t say it, but he knew when she ranted on this topic that it was a tirade against her own parents who’d abandoned her when she was his age. “Be glad you have a mother who loves you.”
He was glad of that. A lot, since she was basically the only person on earth who did. But now that he was a full head taller than her it was weird when she tried to cuddle him like he was a baby. He could be almost seven feet tall like Acheron and she’d probably still try to pull him into her lap. “Sorry, Mom. I’m just really tired.”
“I know, precious.” She leaned over, brushed his hair back from his face and kissed his cheek. “Good night. Sleep tight.”
Without another word, she turned over. Then scooted so that she was touching him with her icy cold feet. He would protest that too, but that might hurt her feelings again.
I can’t wait until I’m grown and have my own place…
I know you hate it now, Nick, but savor it. I promise you, you’ll spend many more years of your life wishing you could see her again than you’ll spend wishing she’d leave you alone. Nick frowned at the intrusiveness of Ambrose in his head. How is it I hear you?
One day, I’ll teach that power to you. You’ll be able to project your thoughts to anyone, just like I can.
Will I be able to read other people’s thoughts like you do, too?
Yes, you will.
That was cool. He could definitely get used to knowing what other people were thinking. It sure would make asking a girl out a lot easier if he knew going into it that she thought he was a total loser dork.
When can I learn it?
Ambrose laughed in his head. Patience, boy. You still haven’t learned everything about controlling the dead that you should have. Or that you need to. Your buddy caused us to accelerate learning that power. And even though you survived, you really didn’t learn much other than how to run from things out to kill you. Before something gets a lucky shot in, I think we should take things a little slower. Learn to crawl, and then I’ll teach you to fly. Literally.
Nick’s eyes widened at that last bit. I’ll be able to fly? Really?
Kid, you have no idea what powers lie within you. What powers I’m going to teach you. But be warned, you are going to have many enemies come at you. Parthenopaeus being one of them.
Nick frowned. Ash?
Yeah. He’s not what he seems, and if you have any brains in your head-and I know you do-you’ll cut him a wide berth…
Before it’s too late.
But he really liked Acheron. Surely someone who was so cool to be with and respectful to his mother couldn’t be so bad. Everyone had problems. Because he and his mother had been rudely misjudged by so many, Nick hated doing that to others. He believed in liking, not necessarily trusting, everyone until they personally gave him a reason not to.
Like shooting me when I decide that I don’t want to live a life of crime.
He heard the sound of exasperation from his uncle. Go to sleep, kid. Tomorrow will begin a new life that you can’t imagine.
With people trying to kill me?
Yes. And that includes your mother.
Nick came awake to the sensation of his mother strangling him. Dressed in the black T-shirt she’d slept in and jeans, she was on her knees beside him, wringing his neck. “Ma! What are you doing?”
She tightened her grip. “I’m killing you. Do you understand? Dead. Dead. Dead.”
He coughed, trying to twist away from her. “What did I do?”
Growling, she released him and moved back, then popped him on the butt. “Because of the stunt you and those moron friends of yours pulled last night, I’m fired. I hope you’re happy. I can barely afford to feed and shelter us now. What am I supposed to do without a job at all? I didn’t graduate high school, and I have no experience except as a dancer.”
She looked like she was about to cry. “You have no idea how awful some of the other clubs treat their people. I know you hated my job, but it was the only thing I could find that paid above minimum wage for someone with no skills or real job experience. I can’t even work a cash register, never mind run a computer or do anything else. Peter won’t listen to an apology. He said that he doesn’t care what happened or how it happened. I’m fired and not to even come back for my checkâ€”he’ll mail it to me ’cause he never wants to see me again. Oh, Godâ€”what am I going to do?”
“Mrs. Gautier, I hear there are places online where you can sell children for a good price. Nick is still young enough, he should fetch enough to tide you over for a bit.”
Nick gaped at Rosa’s voice from the other side of the door as she walked past their room. Normally, he loved the sound of her thick accent, but right now… “Thanks, Rosa. ‘Preciate it.”
“De nada, m’ijo.”
Nick scooted across the bed, trying to get away from his mom before she started choking him again. “Kyrian said he knew some people who could hire you.”
She glared at him as if she really could kill him. “That doesn’t put you off the hook, mister. Are you and Bubba going to waltz in and tranq me again and cause me to lose another job? You know most employers tend to frown on their sons bringing in a brute to carry them out over their shoulders.”
“But it was for your own good.”
“So’s the spanking I’m about to give you.”
Nick leapt back onto the bed, rolled across it, then ran for the door and into the hallway, where he hoped it would be safer. “I’m too big to spank.”
“Fine, you’re grounded until your grandkids are old.”
“Kind of hard to do. How am I supposed to have grandkids if I’m grounded?”
“Precisely my point, you demon spawn. You’re never going to get off restriction. Ever!”
The door at the end of the hall opened to show an irritated Kyrian. Dressed in a pair of black pajama bottoms and no shirt, he glared at them. His hair was tousled and he had a good shadow on his face. More than that, he had a build Nick would kill for. Dang, no one at school would ever pick on him again if he were ripped like that.
Kyrian pinned them both with an angry scowl. “People, I really need to sleep. Can you go downstairs to shout at each other? Or better yet, outside in the yard?”
His mother immediately calmed down. “I’m sorry, Mr. Hunter. We didn’t mean to disturb you.”
Kyrian raked his hand through his blond hair, which made it stand straight up. Nick would laugh or mock it, but Kyrian wasn’t as attached to him as his mom was. “No problem. Now, if it’ll help stop this fighting and save Nick’s life before he can pay me back, put a call in to Sanctuary on Ursuline. Ask for Nicolette Peltier. She’s the owner and I’ve already spoken to her about you. She said to call her anytime and they’d be more than happy to add you to payroll.”
He held his hand up in an imperious gesture that actually silenced Nick’s mom. Wow, to have those evil Jedi tricks. Had Nick done it, his mom really would have spanked him. Hard.
“No buts. Give her a call. I assure you, you’ll love working for them.” And with that, he vanished back into his pitch-black room and shut the door.
Nick let out a relieved breath. He might survive the morning yet.
“Oh, don’t even.” His mom turned her nasty gorgon face back at him. “You’re still not off the hook. Get your butt dressed. You have five minutes.”
“Don’t back-talk me or argue. Not if you want to live to see noon. Get in there and shower. Now!”
Fetch. Heel. Bark, Fido, bark. He really hated when she talked to him like he was nothing but a dog with no other purpose than to obey her every whim. “You know, I don’t ride the short bus, Ma. I can understand you.”
Apparently you can’t, because you now have only four minutes and thirty seconds before they start playing your dirge.”
With a juvenile desire to stick his tongue out at her, he walked back into the room and into the adjacent bathroom so that he could obey and not stay grounded any longer than was necessary.
Though at this rate, it seemed like she was looking for reasons to ground him.
Empty-nest syndrome. She was afraid of him leaving home, so she clung to him all the tighter. Okay, that’s probably not what it was called, but that’s what he was calling it.
Sighing, he stripped his clothes off and started the shower.
Of course, it took him longer than five minutes to finish and dress. And when he opened the door that led back to the bedroom, he found his mother on the bed, glaring furiously at him.
“What? I hurried.”
“Sure you did.” She slid off the bed. “You didn’t even shave.”
“You told me to hurry, so I didn’t bother looking for a razor. Besides, I have only three hairs. Not like anyone can see them except you.” He kept hoping they’d grow longer and multiply, but so far…
They were just enough to be emasculating and annoying. Something else for his mom to nag at him to do.
She made an annoyed sound that always reminded him of a teakettle letting out steam. “C’mon. We have to catch a streetcar.”
“Where are we going?”
“You heard Mr. Hunter. We need to go to Sanctuary.”
“He said to call.”
She rolled her eyes something that would also have got him grounded if he’d done it to her. “You don’t apply for a job that way, Nick.”
He didn’t want to go across town for no reason. Why did he have to watch her apply for a job, anyway? He’d rather have his eyes gouged out than sit there bored and watching the fluorescent lights flicker. “Can’t I stay here?”
“No. We don’t take charity, and you know that. Mr. Hunter was nice enough to put us up for the night, but you should never overstay your welcome.”
“Nick, do what I say.”
Grinding his teeth, he headed for the stairs. He might as well take the but out of his vocabulary, since all it seemed to do was act like a nuclear accelerant that caused her temper to explode.
No sooner had he reached the bottom than he smelled something delicious….Something that smelled like real, juicy, delectable, make-your-mouthwater-and-arteries-harden bacon. Not those bacon bits packets his mom saved from condiment stands and added to his powdered eggs in the morning.
Without conscious thought, he beelined for the kitchen.
His mother grabbed his arm. “Where are you going?”
“Food. I’m following my nose.” And his rumbling stomach.
“No,” she whispered to him. “What part of â€˜no charity’ have you missed?”
The part that said he couldn’t eat.
But he knew better than to argue, especially when she had that look on her face. “Fine.” He headed for the door.
Rosa came around the corner of the wall and frowned at them. “Nick? Mrs. Gautier? Do you not wish to eat before you leave?”
He looked at his mother, hoping she’d change her mind.
“Thank you, Rosa, but we have an appointment to keep.”
Rosa’s frown melted into a kind smile. The same height as his mother, she was a beautiful woman with black hair she kept in a bun and bright brown eyes. “Then let me get it for you to go.”
His mother released his arm. “No, thank you. We don’t want to put you to any trouble.”
“Is no trouble,” Rosa assured her. “I made the food for you. I have already eaten, and Mr. Kyrian won’t be up until much later today. If you no eat, I just throw it away.”
Nick gave his mom his best begging stare and pouty lip. It was a look that had gotten him away with many things that didn’t have a moral dilemma attached to them.
He saw the reluctance in her eyes. She really, really didn’t like to take anything from anybody. People always expect something back when you do. Nothing in life is free, Nick. Don’t take and you won’t be beholding. He knew her litany well.
But he didn’t view this as the same thing.
“You always say we shouldn’t waste food, Ma.”
She took a deep breath before she relented. “All right. Thank you, Rosa.”
“My pleasure. You want me toâ€”?”
“We’ll eat at the table. I don’t want to put you to any more work.”
Nick all but ran to the kitchen, where Rosa had two plates already made and sitting on the center island. The warm smell made his stomach cramp even more. “Oh, my God! We have pancakes and bacon!” It smelled so good, he was already salivating.
Rosa laughed at his eagerness. She had no idea how rare a meal like this was for him. “Don’t you want syrup?” she asked as he grabbed one of the pancakes up and took a bite.
Nick swallowed the delicious-tasting food. “We have syrup, too?”
She pointed to the counter behind him, where a huge bottle of Log Cabin waited. Oh yeah, that’s what I’m talking about…
He grabbed it, popped the top, and proceeded to drown the plate.
His mom was much more sedate as she took her food. “Nick, don’t use so much syrup. You won’t be able to taste your food.”
That was the idea. “Ma, it’s real good syrup and it’s not watered down.” Something she did to make it last longer for them whenever they were lucky enough to get some.
Her face turned bright red.
Rosa patted her on her hand. “It’s okay, Mrs. Gautier. I understand what it’s like to have to struggle to feed my son. Miguel and I had many lean years before I come to work for Mr. Kyrian. You eat as much as you want. Mr. Kyrian’s policy is that no one goes hungry in his home.”
Rosa inclined her head, then moved a plate full of pancakes toward Nick. “But you go a little easy and leave some for your mother. Too many, and your stomach will hurt.”
“Yeah, but so worth the pain. These are delicious. Thank you so much for making them.”
She smiled as she handed him a napkin. “I’m glad you enjoy.”
“I more than enjoy. It’s like all the taste buds in my mouth are singing and dancing. I bet if you listen close, you can even hear them.”
And it got even better when she handed him a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. Oh yeah, he was in heaven.
By the time his mom was finished eating, he’d plowed through most of the pancakes.
Shaking her head, his mom took him by his “uninjured” arm and pulled him away from his empty plate. “C’mon, boo. We need to get going.”
He licked the syrup off his fingers.
His mom screwed her face up in distaste. “Nick, you have a napkin. Please use it.”
“Yeah, but I don’t want to waste it. It’s good.”
She let out a sigh of exasperation as she met Rosa’s gaze. “I swear, Rosa, I have taught him better. It just hasn’t taken yet. Not from lack of effort on my part.”
She laughed. “I know. Believe me, my Miguel is the same way.”
Ignoring them, Nick took one last bite before he followed his mom out of the house and down the street to the station. They didn’t speak much as they made their way from the fancy, high-end Garden District, where Kyrian lived, to the other side of the French Quarter, where the bar and restaurant called Sanctuary stood at 688 Ursuline. Something that involved their getting off the streetcar at Jackson Brewery and hoofi ng it a few blocks over toward the Ursuline’s convent that had given the street its name. Sanctuary was only one block up the street from it and not that far away from his high school.
He’d been by the place more times than he could count. His mother said the crowd in there could be rough and she didn’t want him getting hurt, so he was technically banned from it. And that statement always made him wonder how his mom knew what the crowd was like, since she’d never been inside it. However, he’d never asked her.
It fell into the category of “don’t ask, ’cause you’ll only get a stupid parent answer.” If all your friends jumped off a bridge…Because I said so. So long as you live under my roof…and so on.
Sanctuary aside, Nick had always loved coming to the Quarter as an escape from their run-down condo and neighborhood. Th ere was something about it that soothed every Cajun root inside himâ€”the history, the beauty, the mixture of cultures, smells, food, and people. No place else on earth like it. Not that he’d ever been anywhere else except Laurel or Jackson, Mississippi, whenever they’d had to evacuate for hurricanesâ€”and then he’d seen only the parking lots of what ever store or mall where they’d made temporary camp in their rusted-out Yugo.
He paused as they came even to the Cafe du Monde that sat at the edge of the French Market and the smell of chickory coffee and beignets hit him. It was the first time in his life the sweet smell didn’t cramp his stomach with hunger pangs. Today, with his stomach completely full, he appreciated and savored it.
Until he realized he was being left behind.
Even though he was taller than his mom, he had to hurry to catch up to her. For a little woman, she could seriously haul whenever she wanted to.
Luckily, she was so intent on her destination that she didn’t even notice he was trailing.
She cut down Dumaine to Chartres. And as they went up to the corner of Chartres and Ursuline, she finally slowed down, as if suddenly apprehensive. Not that he blamed her. Almost a city block in size, Sanctuary was not only huge, but legendary as well. Everyone in New Orleans knew about the place that was opened from 8 a.m. to three in the morning. It was said to have some of the best food in the world and some of the meanest patrons.
The three-story redbrick building had a huge sign that hung over saloon-style doors. It was black with a motorcycle parked on a hill and silhouetted by a full moon. The word SANCTUARY was white with a hazy purple outline. And on the lower right-hand side of the sign, in a much smaller font was the slogan, HOME TO THE HOWLERS.
But that wasn’t what made Nick hesitant. Standing just outside the doors was a huge mountain of a man who leaned against the wall. Even taller than Kyrian, he had arms like two tree trunks and long curly blond hair that was pulled back into a ponytail. And as he stared at him, Nick saw a fl ash in his mind of the bouncer turning into a big, angry bear.
He was one of the shape- shifters Alex Peltier had told him about last night….
Nick had no idea how he knew that, but he did. His mom pulled him across the street to where the werebear was standing.
As if he sensed Nick feeling his preternatural powers, the bear narrowed a pair of glacial blue eyes on them. “You two lost?”
His mom swallowed audibly. “Um… Kyrian Hunter told me to speak to a Nicolette Peltier? I believe she owns this establishment.”
He met Nick’s gaze with a curious frown before he pulled a walkie-talkie off his belt and pressed the button. “Aimee? Is Maman in her office?”
“I have two humans out here who want to see her. Kyrian sent them.”
His choice of words amused Nick. While his mother would dismiss it as eccentric, he knew better. The guy in front of him was warning the rest of his family that new humans were entering. Nice code. In your face and at the same time innocuous enough to fly below the radar of most people.
“Be nice to them, Remi, and don’t bite their heads off. Maman will be right out,” the woman on the radio said.
Remi opened the swinging door for them. “If you two want to go on in and wait…”
His mother smiled. “Th ank you.”
Nick paused at the door to look back at the bear. “Is Alex around?”
Remi narrowed his gaze on him. “How you know Alex?” Could there be any more suspicion or challenge in that tone?
“We go to school together.”
“Ah . . .” And that was all he said.
Okay…Obviously the bear wasn’t a morning person and had no desire to tell him where to find his classmate. Deciding not to irritate someone who wasn’t human and who could probably break his spine in half, Nick went inside and joined his mother, who was standing in front of the first round table that was set with four chairs. Since it was still an hour and a half before lunch, there weren’t many occupants in the room. Two men…no, a werepanther and werehawk, stood at the bar, restocking and cleaning. There was one person at a table with a laptop and a cup of coffee. Two women eating a late breakfast and an older man reading the paper and making notes of some kind.
His mom handed him a dollar. “Go play a video game while I talk to the owner.”
Th inking it was odd, but too grateful for the rarity of having money to waste, Nick went off the rear of the restaurant, where pool tables and arcade games were placed against the wall. As he neared them, he caught sight of a boy a few years older than him who was cleaning tables. It wasn’t the matted blond dreadlocks that made him pause so much as it was the small monkey sitting on the boy’s shoulder, eating a banana. The monkey bared its teeth at Nick before it made noises at him. The busboy reached up to soothe the monkey, and it settled right down.
Nick wanted to go and investigate the primate, but something about the busboy warned him to keep his distance.
No, not boy.
Weretigard. A very vicious and antisocial one.
How can I tell that by looking at them?
Yesterday, he’d been normal.
He was a freakfast as images of the shape-shifters around him flashed in his mind. He didn’t know their names, but he knew what they were even though they were masquerading as humans.
What is going on?
His head was spinning from an overload of information. But with all of that was an overwhelming sense of safety. He didn’t feel threatened by the animals around him. It was as if they were guardians of some sort. Protectors, not predators. Something that sounded as far-fetched as a restaurant and bar owned by a family of shape-shifters.
Ambrose? He silently summoned his uncle, needing someone who could help him understand. What’s going on here? I’m seeing some scary things. People who aren’t people…
Remember what I told you, kid. You have the power of perspicacity. The ability to see what’s hidden.
So no one will ever be able to lie to me again?
No. That’s a different power. Perspicacity allows you to see most preternatural beings who are trying to blend into the human world.
What do you mean “most”?
Th ere are some demons who are powerful enough to hide. As well as upper-level gods and those who are possessed. In time, you’ll be able to see them, too. But that will take a lot of training and discipline.
For now…it was like living in some bad psychedelic hallucination.
Just relax, Nick. Go play a game.
He felt Ambrose leaving him alone again. With nothing better to do, he went over to the Galaga machine. Wow, he hadn’t seen one of these in a long time. Some old-timer here must have caught a liking to it. Pulling out his dollar, he converted it to tokens, then put one in and listened to distinctive music. He’d just started playing when a shadow fell over him.
He looked up and froze instantly. Holy Mother…
Th is dude had to be over seven feet tall. An older version of the guy at the door, this one had the most merciless expression Nick had ever seen.
I’m going to die….
“Who said you could play my machine?”
Nick knew it was a man saying it, but he saw Grizzly Peltier in his mind. A huge bear with blood in its eyes. “Uh…”
Th e man laughed and playfully shoved his arm. “Relax, kid. Don’t wet my floor. I was just teasing you.”
Easier said than done, since his heart was racing like Richard Petty at Daytona.
He shook his head. “I’m Papa Bear Peltier. You have a name?”
“Nice meeting you, N-n-nick.” He pulled a token out of his pocket and held it out to him. “Sorry I ruined your game. But I love the look of shock on people’s faces the fi rst time they meet me. It’s a thing of beauty.”
Nick took the token, but still wasn’t sure what to think.
He’s a good guy, kid. Th ank him for the token.
Papa Bear patted him on the shoulder, then walked over toward the stage so that he and another guy who was an exact copy of Remi could run electrical cords on the ground.
“Close your mouth, sug. Papa only bites those who bare their teeth first.”
He turned at the soft, lightly accented voice to find what had to be one of the most gorgeous women he’d ever seen. Tall, blond, and built with the kind of curves men dreamed about, she wore a black Sanctuary T-shirt that was tight enough to make him really uncomfortable.
“I’m Aimee Peltier. You must be Nick.”
Man, she had better powers than he did. “How do you know my name?”
She leaned in to speak into his ear as if she were imparting a great secret to him. “Your mother told me in the back room,” she whispered.
Oh yeah, duh. He felt epically stupid with that. “C’mon and let me introduce you to the crew that is currently awake and functioning.”
Unsure about that, Nick hesitated. “Why?” Was she going to feed him to the bears or something?
“Since your mom will be working here and your school is just down the street, you’ll probably be hanging out a lot in the near future.”
“Oh.” Finally relaxing, he allowed her to lead him to the busboy with the monkey.
“Wren, say hi to Nick.”
The busboy didn’t respond other than to glare out from under his mop of gnarled hair.
Aimee took it in stride. “Wren doesn’t really speak. But he’s a nice guy, and he lives next door in our house. You’ll see him a lot, since he has no personal life or outside interests. He basically works all the time.” She scratched the monkey on its head. “And his furry little friend is Marvin. Marvin, say hi to Nick.”
Th e monkey jumped from Wren’s shoulder to Nick’s, startling him. Nick grabbed him and held him close while Marvin mussed his hair and stuck one leathery little finger in his ear. Ew!
“He likes to mess with people’s hair.” Aimee held her hand out, and Marvin allowed her to pull him into her arms and hug him. “Marvin’s a little beggar. Keep some snacks handy, and he’ll be your new best friend.” She nuzzled his nose before returning him to Wren.
Wren didn’t say a word as Marvin perched on his shoulder. He merely went back to work, wiping down the tables.
Aimee led Nick away. “You met Remi when you arrived. My best advice to you on that is to learn which of the quads he is.”
She gestured to the stage, where Papa and the Remi look-alike were working. “I have four brothers who are identical quads. Quinn!” she called.
The younger werebear looked up.
She smiled and waved him back to work. “That’s obviously Quinn. I thought so, but sometimes, rare though it is, I can’t tell him from Cherif. They have the same exact haircut, which they occasionally do to mess with us. It’s normally a little shorter than Remi’s and Dev’s. Dev you can spot pretty easy because he’s always laughing and cracking sarcastic jokesâ€”your mom said that that’s right up your alley. He also has a double bow and arrow tattoo on his arm, and he’s most often the one at the door. He took the day off to run over to Kenner to pick up a motorcycle he had on order.” She drew up short and gave him a sinister look. “If you approach one of them and he growls or doesn’t speak, assume it’s Remi. He has perpetual PMS and will tear your arm right out of its socket. You don’t really have to do anything other than breathe to piss him off . Word to the wise.”
He made a mental note of that as she took him to the bar.
“The blond is Jasyn. Jasyn, say hi to Nick.”
Th e werehawk inclined his head to him. “The other charming bartender this morning is Justin.”
Black hair, tall, and with an aura of I’ ll kick your butt so hard, you’ ll be burping my shoe leather. Another one Nick intended to avoid.
An older version of Aimee came out from the door next to the bar. She paused as she caught sight of him.
He felt like he was under a microscope as she eyed him from head to toe.
Finally, she held her hand out. “Good day, Mr. Gautier. I am Nicolette. But please, call me Mama Lo.”
Her glower melted into a kind expression. “Welcome to our family. I hear you work for Kyrian.”
“I do. Until he fi res me.”
She laughed. “No need to give him reason to. Besides, he doesn’t fire his people. He kills them.”
“Maman!” Aimee said with a laugh. “The poor boy doesn’t know you’re kidding.”
“Nick? What are you doing here?”
He turned at the call that came from Alex’s sister Kara, who also went to school with them. Even in height to him, she had the same blond hair as Aimee and Mama Lo.
Aimee explained his presence before he had a chance. “His mother will be working for us, Kiki. Why don’t you take him to the kitchen? I’m pretty sure Morty’s cookies are done.”
Cookies? Dang, if they kept this up, he was going to be huge.
But it would be worth it.
Nick took a step toward the kitchen, then paused as a cold chill went down his spine. Something was here and it was evil.
He searched the room until his gaze found the source of his discomfort. The man stepped through the door behind the women, carry ing a silver tray. Dressed in a black T-shirt and gray hoodie, at first glance, he appeared like any guy around the age of twenty.
Until Nick locked gazes with him. It felt like electricity jolted him. There was no denying the intensity of this creature’s presence.
He was Death, and he’d ridden in on a pale horse. . . .