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I'd spent the last five minutes contorted into the wizard version of a pretzel. Damn it, what was the point of being a hotshot sentinel with mad elven fire skills if you couldn't put those skills to good use?
I'd been trying to simultaneously turn the starter valve and the gas release to ignite a gas log fireplace. To do it properly, I'd need the wingspan of a bald eagle and a healthy body. Thanks to a compact frame from my Alabama ancestors and a gunshot wound and bruised ribs caused by the crazed elven version of Lizzie Borden, I had neither.
Besides, who'd know if I cheated and used a little magic?
I turned the gas valve, and the nausea-inducing odor of rotten eggs filled the living room of Eugenie Dupre's house.
"Oh God, I'm gonna be sick." My best friend raced down the hallway with a thunder of boot heels and her hand clapped over her mouth. Her face turned a sickly shade of pale green that clashed with her auburn hair.
Ignoring the mental nag that reminded me how often I'd criticized my father Gerry for saying the same thing about his casual use of magic, I flicked a spark of energy against the gas, watching with inordinate pride as a neat row of flames danced into motion around the ceramic fake log. Anytime my magic involved fire and didn't destroy something or cause an explosion, I considered it a victory.
My victories have been rare.
I slipped my right arm back into its sling, closed the protective mesh fire screen, and waited for the last of the gas fumes to dissipate, soaking the warmth into my skin. New Orleans was rarely pleasant in winter, never mind that winter only lasted about eight weeks. During those weeks, the air hung heavy and damp, constantly buffeted by a cold and bitter wind.
Every once in a while, though, we'd have a true winter. I'd even seen snow once or twice in my lifetime, including Christmas Day 2004, before Hurricane Katrina struck the following August. A white Christmas in New Orleans should have been a hint that the apocalypse, or the New Orleans magical version of it, was fast approaching. The hurricane had not only led to the failure of the levees and almost destroyed my hometown, but its barometric pressure had turned the border between the human world and the preternatural Beyond into a sieve. The city had been flooded with pretes.
Preternatural creatures were like poor relations after a big lottery win. Once you let them inside, they have no inclination to leave. First, they wore down the wizards and persuaded our Elders to form an Interspecies Council to set magical policy. Now, they had the gall to actually demand representation on the council. Negotiations were chilly.
Almost as chilly as the weather. November's balmy and thunderous weather had given way to plummeting temperatures as we headed into mid-December. If we were lucky, today's high might climb to a toasty thirty-three, with snow flurries. Other parts of the world might scoff, but damn it, I was freezing. I'd never tolerated cold well but this year had been worse, and my injured shoulder ached more with every falling degree.
Eugenie clattered back into the high-ceilinged living room and collapsed on the worn orange sofa, a garage-sale find we'd lugged home in my old Pathfinder a few years ago. That would be the Pathfinder turned into a twisted metal carcass by an errant shot of my elven staff, aka Charlie. I missed the SUV. Actually, I missed driving. Since I'd also inadvertently caused the destruction of a rental car, every agency in town had me on some kind of secret "do not rent to this woman" hazard list. Arnie the United Cab driver and I had become way too chummy.
"Feeling better?" I asked. Eugenie's face had lost most of its green undertones. "The gas smells awful, but most of the eau de sulfur has burned off. You're looking better."
"I'm okay." She clutched a throw pillow to her midsection and curled up on the sofa. "It wasn't the gas. I probably have a virus or something."
"How about some tea? If I'm going to crash here, you might as well let me take care of you." I climbed to my feet with the speed of a slug. Since my house across the street had burned down last month, I'd been living in the semi-finished first floor of Gerry's old Katrina-flooded house in Lakeview. My significant something-or-other Alex had made it habitable, but hadn't gotten around to installing heat.
He also hadn't gotten around to inviting me to stay at his place during the cold wave, although I knew he wanted to keep up appearances that we weren't in cahoots before we had to testify at tomorrow night's Interspecies Council hearing.
"DJ, nothing personal, but you aren't the caregiver type. I'll settle for some juice from the fridge. You might burn down the kitchen if you tried to make tea." Eugenie's smile was faint but heartfelt. She really didn't look well, so I let the wisecrack pass.
"Gotcha." I shuffled into the kitchen, pulled open the door of the old white Frigidaire, and stared at the top shelf. Last time I'd been here, it had contained bottle after bottle of Abita beer and soda. Now, a menagerie of juice filled its shelves-grape, apple, orange, pomegranate. Lots and lots of cranberry. Not a soda in sight, which amounted to gastronomic blasphemy.
Before Eugenie had talked me into staying with her, I'd planned to spend the cold wave in the warm, posh Eudora Welty Suite at the Hotel Monteleone. The lavish suite, which rented for more money per night than I earned in two weeks, currently lay unoccupied. Its normal resident, the undead pirate Jean Lafitte, was holed up in his outpost of Old Orleans, a border town between modern New Orleans and the preternatural world Beyond.
Ostensibly, he was recuperating from his latest death, one of the subjects the council would be discussing.
In reality, I suspected he was mixing his recovery with a heavy dose of plotting. I expected him to arrive at the Interspecies Council meeting heavily armed and with vengeance on his mind. Jean Lafitte might be handsome and flirtatious, but he was also lethal. He wouldn't roll over and take an act of betrayal, and he had definitely been betrayed.
I picked a bottle of grape juice and one of apple, and let the fridge door slam shut. Setting the bottles on the counter, I opened the cabinet where Eugenie kept the cups and glasses-or at least she used to. Now, the shelves bulged with protein bars, oats, and honey. A freaking bottle of agave nectar taunted me from the bottom shelf.
The glasses had migrated one cabinet over, and I retrieved a couple for our juice and took them into the living room. "What's with all the healthy crap in the kitchen? Looks like I need to make a run to the grocery store for real food."
Because I wasn't consuming cactus juice, no matter what fancy name one called it.
"Yeah, I threw all my junk food out." Eugenie had managed to sit up. Forever the hairstylist, she was trying to fluff the bedhead rumples out of her hair. She'd canceled her appointments for the day and closed her salon, Shear Luck, in honor of her illness. "I'm trying to eat healthier."
"Bad idea." Speaking selfishly, of course. If Eugenie hopped on the Alex Warin healthy living bandwagon, I'd be riding alone on the fried food train to clogged arteries. Chocoholics needed friends with whom to binge. "Junk food nurtures the spirit. I think there's scientific research to prove it."
Eugenie didn't answer, just poured apple juice into a glass and sipped it. She didn't look at me. In fact, she'd been withdrawn since I'd arrived a couple of hours ago, overnight bag in hand.
Maybe she regretted the invitation to let a beer-swilling, fried-food-eating houseguest move in, even temporarily. I was okay with that; the Monteleone had an awesome room service menu.
"Look, we're best friends, right?" I waited until she finally looked up at me. "If you need to do something or I'm getting in the way, tell me. No hard feelings. I can go to Jean's suite like I'd planned, or stay at Alex's." Whether he invited me or not.
To my horror, a stray tear trickled down Eugenie's cheek. "Please don't go. I..." She shook her head and resumed her intense gaze at the dark green and rust-colored area rug.
I set my glass of juice on the scuffed coffee table and went to sit on the sofa next to her. We'd been through a lot in the last couple of months, my friend and I. That we were still friends at all-maybe on the way to becoming better friends than before-was a testament more to her than to me. I could admit my own failures. Eugenie Dupre was big-hearted and brave and fiercely loyal, all things I aspired to but didn't always achieve.
I ignored the pinch of the wrap around my ribs when I settled back on the sofa, and reached out to grasp her hand. "Talk to me."
More tears, and she wouldn't look me in the eye. "It's nothing. Ignore me. Hormones."
I squeezed her hand. Not buying that one. "This is me, Euge. Don't give me the 'hormones' crap. What's up?"
She didn't answer for a long time, but clutched my hand like a lifeline. "Well, it's about Rand, sort of."
I should've known. That freaking elf Quince Randolph had caused nothing but misery since he'd opened his Plantasy Island nursery across the street, wooed Eugenie as a way to get to me, and turned on her like a snake as soon as he'd found a way to slither into my life for political gain.
She ended up with a broken heart, and I ended up with a lifelong bond to an elven asshat. Frankly, I thought she got the better end of the deal.
I also thought she'd gotten over him. "What has he done now? Because I'd welcome the opportunity to call him over here and kick his elven assets halfway to Lake Pontchartrain." I didn't know if it would help Eugenie, but it would make me feel better.
She sniffled. "Rand wouldn't come over here even for you, not today. He told me one time he couldn't stand getting out in cold weather. Besides, it's nothing he's done. Well, nothing he's done recently. I haven't even seen him in a couple of weeks. Not since ... you know."
Yeah, I knew. The night Quince Randolph had told her we were married, a highly exaggerated description of our even-less-than-platonic bonding. Asshat. It was the only word that did him justice.
I tried to set my personal animosity aside and focus instead on what Rand might have done in the past that was only now making Eugenie miserable. There were so many possibilities. "I don't unders-"
"Can elves and humans, you know..." She swallowed hard, and her hazel eyes spilled another round of tears down her cheeks as she looked me in the eye for the first time. I held on, waiting for the rest of it. Even with the little bag of herbs around my neck blocking most of my empathic ability, her fear came through loud and clear. She was petrified.
"Can humans have elf babies?"
I'd lived in old houses most of the past decade, and they're rarely quiet. They creak and settle. Antique wood flooring crackles. Plaster chips off between strips of lathing and drifts down the insides of the walls.
You could've heard a feather floating through Eugenie's living room. She looked at me in fearful anticipation of my answer, but my vocal cords had turned to ice. Because, of course, the answer was yes. Their prolific mating with humans was one reason the elves had dwindled as a species.
"Oh God, they can. Of course they can. I can see it on your face." She dropped my hand and clutched her pillow, then tossed it on the floor and stood. "I'm gonna be sick again."
I watched in horror as she ran through the door into the hallway and out of sight. Holy crap. Eugenie didn't have a virus. She had morning sickness-well, in this case, afternoon sickness.
I ignored the retching sounds drifting down the hallway from the downstairs bath and reined in the runaway thoughts and spiral of what-ifs trying to unspool in my brain. The last response Eugenie needed from me was horror or hysteria. A plain-vanilla human, she'd only learned about the preternatural world three weeks ago-including the fact that the lying, manipulative bastard she'd been sleeping with was an elf with political ambitions. She needed me to guide her through this minefield.
Only one problem: I was clueless.
Hadn't they used protection of some kind? Had Eugenie thought a baby would help her hang on to Rand when she saw him slipping away, toward me? Before she knew what he really was? What would a half-elven baby be able to do?
I got up and paced the room, ashamed that my first thoughts had been to cast blame. If I'd learned anything from the New Orleans I'd inhabited since Hurricane Katrina smashed normal life into something unrecognizable, it was to not even go down the what-if road. Blame was a useless emotion, and assigning motive was worse than useless.
To move on, I'd learned, one simply had to take things as they existed in the present and keep blundering forward.
By the time Eugenie returned, looking paler than ever, I'd composed my face into a mask of calm. Beneath, I was shrieking like a model for Edvard Munch, but I looked serene and compassionate, if not exactly competent.
I'd taken Eugenie's glass of juice back into the kitchen and added a little seltzer and powdered ginger to it, and handed it to her when she sat down.
"I doctored it to help with the nausea." She raised an eyebrow, and I smiled. "Don't worry. Nothing magical. Just stuff from your kitchen."
I waited until she drank a few sips before asking, in my gentlest tone, "Are you sure?"
She bit her lower lip and nodded. "I haven't taken a test, but believe me, I know."
There was hope, then. "But it really might be a virus or-"
"You don't know this, but I've been pregnant before, back when I lived in Marrero."
I fell silent, waiting to hear the rest. The time was shadowy between her childhood in the western New Orleans suburbs and her arrival in Uptown, tattooed and henna-rinsed. From late-night girl talks, I knew there had been a man; wasn't there always? There'd been a bad breakup in the old neighborhood of Marrero, across the Mississippi River from the bustle of New Orleans. This was the first I'd heard about a pregnancy.
"I lost the baby near the end of the second trimester." She smiled and swirled the golden juice around in her glass, looking into the past. "It was a little boy. I'd already picked out his name: Charles, after my daddy."
A stab of pity knifed through me at her expression, still filled with love for a child she'd never gotten to hold. "You had a miscarriage?"
She nodded, but when she looked back up at me her hazel eyes had lost their wistful softness. "Not the way you think, though. My ex caused it, by knocking me down a flight of stairs 'cause I was standing between him and the TV set and the Saints were playing the Cowboys."
She shook her head and stared out the window at nothing. "The pathetic thing is that for the longest time I blamed myself. How stupid was I?"
I tried to reconcile the image of my brave friend, the one who'd never backed away from anything, with a woman who'd stay in an abusive relationship. But such a judgment wasn't fair, either. Eugenie was so big-hearted that she believed the absolute best of everybody. I'd been the beneficiary of that too many times to count, and I was willing to bet her ex had, too. God knows, Quince Randolph had.
I wanted to hear what happened to her jerk of an ex, but first we needed to deal with this still-hypothetical pregnancy. "You're saying you feel the same way now as when you were pregnant before?"
Eugenie sighed and leaned back on the sofa, her shoulders relaxing now that the burden had been shared. "Yeah. Same type of queasiness. Not like a virus. It's just different."
I did some mental calculations. She and Rand had only been together since late October, so she couldn't be more than six weeks along, maximum.
"I recognize that look, DJ." She reached over to the end table, picked up her cell phone, and stabbed at the screen. "I was studying the calendar and I figure I'm about a month along, maybe a little more, if..."
The if trailed into a long silence.
"If what?" If elves had the same gestational period as humans? If she should even consider having this child, given the circumstances and the fact that the father was a sneaky, manipulative elf?
"If it would show up on a home pregnancy test." Her eyes brightened. "I mean, maybe I'm just panicking. We were always safe; I insisted on it. Would Rand's baby show up on one of those tests you buy at the drugstore?"
I had no idea. "Let's find out. I'll run over to Walgreens and get one, and pick up some ginger ale for you while I'm there. It doesn't have caffeine, and it'll help the nausea." Plus, I felt a growing need for chocolate and the store was stocked with Christmas candy.
I wrapped a scarf around my neck and bundled myself into a hideous orange and purple plaid wool coat I'd picked up at a charity thrift store yesterday, at Arnie the cabbie's insistence. He often shopped there, and a girl needed a coat in this weather, he'd said.
I'd been even more fashion-challenged than usual since my entire wardrobe had gone up in flames just before Thanksgiving, and when I needed basics like underwear and shoes, it seemed frivolous to spend real money on a heavy coat that might get trotted out of the closet once a year.
Not that I had a closet. And no one except a pumpkin and some breeds of cat looked good in orange-and never when it was tarted out with purple, unless one were headed for a Clemson football game.
"Need anything else?" I paused at the front door and looked back at Eugenie. "Pizza? Soda?"
A good, stiff shot of bourbon?
She shook her head, sadness and fear etched into her face in equal measure. I'd be freaking out in her position, and I had a lot of resources she didn't: other wizards, a passing knowledge of the prete world, Alex.
All Eugenie had was me. Maybe I hadn't always been the best friend to her, but I swore to myself: This time, I wouldn't fail her.
Copyright © 2015 by Suzanne Johnson