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"Hey, it's a nice night just for being alive," he said cheerfully, then winced.

Nikki slipped an arm through his. "Hey, don't worry. I don't want to spend my days walking on eggshells, worrying about every word that comes out of my mouth. It is a beautiful night—and a great night to be alive."

They walked Madame the few blocks to her place, then turned and started back toward Bourbon Street.

"Want a nightcap or anything?" Julian asked, a brotherly arm around her shoulder.

She shook her head. "Honestly, you know what's strange? I've never been much of a drinker, and I had such a bad hangover the day we found out about Andy that I just haven't wanted anything since."

"Maybe you need a hair of the dog that bit you," Julian said.

"Actually, I'd like to get home. I haven't been sleeping much."

"Hey, it's okay. Lots of people in your position would be on sedatives, you know. I mean, you hired her. You two bonded right away. And you had to deal with trying to find out if there was someone to contact, and then arrange the funeral and all… well, that's a tough load. And it's tough just to have known someone who was… murdered."

"The rest of you seem to be doing all right."

"Like I said, you two kind of bonded. You and Andy, well, you were both orphans. You had that in common."

"I had my grandparents, at least," Nikki said. "Cousins, aunts and uncles… though they've mostly moved pretty far away these days. But I had family. Andy didn't have even that."

"She had us. We were family," Julian assured her. "Well, we would have been," he said.

They reached the iron gate in the brick wall that surrounded Nikki's place. "What is the trick to this damn thing?" he muttered.

"The latch is under and over. It's not a lock, it just keeps the curious out," Nikki said. She bit her lip, wanting to reach over and open it herself, but Julian seemed determined. She folded her arms across her chest, looking around.

It was always amazing how life went on.

A couple, arm in arm, strolled leisurely down the street, leaning toward one another. He was ebony. She was ivory. Nikki smiled, loving the ease with which people lived their lives in New Orleans now. There had been a time when old "Beast" Butler had ruled the city, but that was long ago. They were on the move here now.

A rowdy group of young men walked along the street, then paused nearby, drinks in hand, talking about a sax player who was working down on the square.

More couples strolled along.

A larger group of young men joined the first.

"Damn this thing, but I will get it," Julian said, determined.

Nikki barely heard him. She straightened against the brick wall.

There was someone in the midst of the group in the street, but he wasn't one of them. He was shaggy-haired. Clothes wrinkled, worn. He turned toward her.

Handsome face…

Beneath the scraggly growth of beard.

He stared at her as if he recognized her.

And she stared back, certainly recognizing him.

She swung around, tapping hard on Julian's shoulder. "Julian… Julian. Turn around quick. I just saw him."

"Him, who?"

Julian turned to her, confused.

"The bum who was at Madame's that day."


"He's there—in that group of college guys," she declared.

Julian stared out to the street and searched the cleanshaven faces. So did she.

"Where?" Julian said.

"There, in the middle of them," Nikki announced. She ran into the street, into the midst of the ten or so young men.

"Hey!" said one, almost falling into her.

"Hi, there, babe," another slurred. He cast an arm sloppily around her shoulder.

"Hey, get your hands off her," Julian demanded forcefully.

Nikki was barely aware of their exchange.

"He… he was here," she said, puzzled.

"Who was here, honey? I'm available," a blond kid with a New York accent said, smiling stupidly and coming up on her other side.

"Leave her alone," Julian said angrily.

"Yeah? And who are you? Her daddy… pimp daddy, something like that?"

Julian hauled off, catching the young man beneath the jaw. He sucked in his breath, staggered back and fell.

"Julian… shit!" Nikki breathed, her attention wrenched back to their current situation.

"Hey, asshole, there was no call for that," the blonde from New York said. He dropped his plastic drink cup and strode menacingly toward Julian.

Others began to follow suit, circling him as their friend staggered to his feet.

"Everyone!" Nikki announced loudly. "Stop it right now. I'm going to scream, I'll get the police. Just calm down."

No one seemed to hear her. The first kid reached Julian. He dodged that blow, but another one of the youths was to his right, and he took a swing.

"Stop!" Nikki jumped onto the back of one of them. He didn't even seem to notice her weight. She banged a fist on the top of his head. "Stop it right now!"

He still didn't seem to notice her. She slid off his back, landing on her rump.

In a fair fight, Julian could handle himself. Against ten or so…

He didn't stand a chance.

Nikki opened her mouth to start screaming. The police had to come, and come quickly.


The voice that suddenly thundered through the crowd was deep and resonant, and had a note of such pure authority that everyone, including Nikki, suddenly went dead still.

A man came striding into the frozen tableau. From her position on her butt in the street, he seemed extraordinarily tall, dark, broad shouldered and well muscled beneath a casual knit polo shirt and jeans. He caught hold of the kid who was about to deck Julian.

"What the hell is going on here?"

"He started it." The college boy sounded like a grade-school kid in trouble.

"They were coming on to Nikki," Julian said.

"Just break it up, all of you," the man said irritably.

"Or what?" ventured one of the drunker college boys.

The man stared at him. That was it; he just stared.

"Just asking," the boy muttered. He turned and started down the street. "Come on, guys, let's get out of here."

They all followed suit, heading down the street.

The man turned toward where Nikki was still sitting on the street. He strode toward her, offering her a hand up.

She saw his face.

His complexion was a deep tan, almost bronze, his eyes a startling, brilliant green. The hard chiseled angles and planes clearly denoted a Native American background somewhere. His hair was pitch dark and dead straight, just a little long. It wasn't so much that he was typically handsome, but he was one of the most arresting individuals she had ever seen. He seemed to emit confidence and authority, and not just because of his imposing height or the breadth of his shoulders. There was a sleek agility about him for a man of his size, and his features were hard cut, seeming to exude an essentially masculine sensuality mixed with stark assurance.

His hand, outstretched to her, was large, the fingers long, nails neatly clipped, clean—and powerful, she quickly discovered.

But it wasn't the strength of his grip, bringing her easily to her feet that so disturbed her.

It was his touch.

Energy, almost like a fire, or a current, streaking from him to her.

And then…

His eyes.

They looked into hers.

And they saw something.

What, she didn't know. He released her instantly, stepping back, surveying her, not in a sexual way, and not with disdain or disinterest.

As if he recognized her.

"Are you all right?" he asked politely.

"Um… fine," she murmured.

He nodded. "You?" he asked Julian.

"Yeah, thanks to you," Julian told him, eyeing the stranger curiously. "Hey, we kind of owe you. Can we buy you a drink or something?"

The man shook his head. "You don't owe me anything." He cracked a slight smile, which transformed his face. He was suddenly striking. Still hard, but striking.

"I just wouldn't mess with large crowds in the future, huh?" he suggested.

With a wave, he turned and left them.

* * *

Chapter 6

Brent walked down the street, shaking his head.

New Orleans.

America's most European city. A mixture of architecture and mood, sultry heat and shifting shadows. It was as if time had cast a mood over the city that had sunk into the very bones of its man-made structures. History piled upon the passions of those who had lived before.

It held the remnants of days gone by, mixed with the new, the lively, the present-day city, with its love of gardens, jazz, good times and voodoo.

There was unbelievable talent to be found with the turn of a corner, like the old black man two streets over who had played a banjo better than he'd ever heard before. The man had just been sitting there, playing and smiling and, Brent hoped, making a fair amount of money from the passersby who were dropping bills in his instrument case.

Brent passed a closed shop with a storefront announcing "Dolly's Dolls," and next to it was a neon light advertising "Girls, Girls, Naked Girls."

People laughing, drinking, admiring artists, musicians, mimes…

People drinking themselves silly, picking fights.

The encounter he'd just had was disturbing, and he didn't want to think about it.

He could still feel her hand in his.

And he'd walked away. Which had been smart. Still, he couldn't help but wonder about the woman. She had the biggest, brightest eyes he'd ever seen. Green. Blue. Aqua. Something like the sea, somewhere in between. Fairly tall, nice figure, obvious even in the long black dress she'd been wearing.

A Goth? Hell, everybody in this city seemed to think they were a voodoo queen, a long-dead duchess, a vampire or a tarot reader.