Tabitha closed her eyes and enjoyed the kiss, leaning further into its warmth as his hand snaked to her waist to pull her flush against him. She frowned a little at his much taller frame, the difference feeling strange and awkward to her. But when she lifted her hand to his face, her fingertips brushed against the familiar feel of a stubbled cheek, and she was able to sink back into the feelings the kiss had stirred in her. The memory of the last time she’d been in familiar arms that had pulled her close and kissed her so gently surfaced in her mind. The last time he’d kissed her before he’d…
A disappointed sigh blew across her lips as he pulled back from her, shattering the memory that surfaced in her mind. But he didn’t pull completely away from her, simply leaned his forehead against hers as he spoke.
“After all these years, you finally show up on my doorstep—a thing I’ve been dreaming of for so long—but it ain’t me on your mind when I kiss you.”
Tabitha’s eyes snapped open at the familiar, deep Southern drawl to stare up into dark brown eyes as he leaned back away from her. There was a small smile playing on his lips as he spoke, but those dark eyes still gave him away, even after so many years apart, revealing the disappointment he was trying to hide.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Cort,” she tried to lightly tell him, hoping to hide the guilt she’d felt when she’d opened her eyes to his dark ones instead of the blue eyes of the one she had been thinking of.
He kissed her playfully on the nose as he released his hold on her waist, pushing the ornately carved door further open and ushering her inside from his covered front porch. She followed his invitation, pausing only to pick up her dropped bags.
“Now, don’t you be lying to me, Chérie, I know a little something about what it’s like to kiss a woman when she’s thinking of me, and what it’s like to kiss a woman that’s thinking of someone else. And your mind was far from here with me,” he teasingly scolded as he gallantly took her bags from her.
She glanced hesitantly around the spacious foyer just inside the door. If the size and obvious grandeur of the outside of the house had given her cause to hesitate in knocking on Cort’s door, the opulence of the inside gave her pause to even take another step forward. Or breathe.
Cort’s house in New Orleans was nothing like what she had imagined. For one, she had imagined a house. Or an apartment. Not an old, antebellum, plantation-style mansion in the Garden District. She’d been unfamiliar with the addresses of New Orleans, and when the cab had pulled up in front of the address she’d given him, she’d nearly told him to keep driving. Never had she imagined that the hunter she’d known years before was so wealthy as to actually live in the famous Garden District of NOLA.
Antiques likely worth a small fortune looked so at home in rooms adorned with white marble, crystal chandeliers, and Persian rugs. Even a baby-grand piano stood in the center of the room. There was nothing cheap or tacky about his place. It was all high-priced, one-of-a-kind type antiques. Not hand-me-down, factory-made furniture like had filled her own home. When she’d had one anyway.
“Does it meet with your approval?” Cort drawled, obvious humor in his voice at her stupefied expression.
“I feel like if I take a step or even breathe wrong, I’ll break something or just get it dirty,” she confessed.
He laughed deeply at her statement, dropping her bags at the bottom of an old-fashioned curved staircase and wrapping an arm around her shoulders, leading her into what she assumed would be called a “sitting room.” She’d certainly never really known anyone who owned a home grand enough to have one, but she supposed part of it was the old-fashioned Southern charm at play. Southern homes had to have sitting rooms, right?
Gesturing towards one end of a couch, he plopped down on the other end, his tall frame taking up a large portion of the ivory settee. It wasn’t his style, but it still seemed at home in the antebellum mansion. And strangely, so did Cort.
“Have a seat, Tabby cat, and tell me what brings you to my doorstep,” he commanded, patting the space beside him. “Have something to do with this fella on your mind?”
She frowned, both at the endearment she hadn’t heard in years, and at his continued insistence to talk about something she just wanted to push out of her mind.
“I just needed some time away from my brothers,” she answered, a partial, but altogether honest truth.
He had spread his arm along the back of the couch when he sat down, and used his position to reach out with one hand, twirling one of her blond curls around his fingers as he pressed, “So it’s got nothing to do with this other man on your mind?”
Turning sideways on the couch to face him, she scooted closer to ask, “What does it matter? And why are you so certain I was thinking of anyone else?”
He leaned closer to kiss her again, his fingers still playing with her hair. Tabitha let his lips press softly to hers, but didn’t respond to his attempts this time. Cort pulled back just a fraction, his lips almost brushing against hers as he smugly told her, “See? You’re talking to a man that knows what it feels like to kiss you when you’re all the way in it. And I’ve kissed enough women who were wishing I was someone else to recognize the taste of that, too.”
For a moment, Tabitha let her eyes close again, remembering what it had been like the last time she’d seen Cort. When she had kissed him and wanted nothing and no one else. When she couldn’t have imagined being with any man but him. She’d been younger then. So much younger. A decade was a long time for a person to change. Even under normal circumstances and nothing about her life had been normal.
But it had been good between them back then. More than good. She’d been with enough men since that time to know what real chemistry felt like. How easily the world and thoughts of anything else could slip away with the kind of chemistry she and Cort had sizzled with. She’d only found that kind of passion and real chemistry one other time. That had been…beyond even words to describe it. But it hadn’t ended well either.
Impulsively, she leaned forward the few inches that separated them, seeking Cort’s warm lips again. Hoping that their chemistry still sizzled hot enough to sear away any other thoughts from her mind.
Cort moaned and sank into her for only a few seconds before pushing her away, holding her by her shoulders to keep her back.
His dark eyes were hidden behind tightly shut eyelids, and his voice had dropped an octave, sounding hoarse like he’d just run a marathon as he told her, “Now you’re just trying to use me to wipe away a memory.” He almost sounded…hurt.
Her own breathing felt a little labored as she demanded, “So? I really didn’t think it would matter to you. I figured you’d prefer a woman that was thinking of someone else. Makes it easier to ride off on your motorcycle in the middle of the night, doesn’t it?”
The fingers wrapped around her arms dug into her flesh almost painfully, but his thumbs rubbed soothing circles into her flesh at the same time. Pleasure mixed with pain. Did that have to describe all the men in her life?
But when his eyes slowly opened, she only saw pain in those dark depths.
He glanced away briefly as he told her, “Maybe that’s been true enough with normal women—does make it easier to move on when I’m done doing whatever job brought me to town—but you never were a normal girl to me, Chérie. You were something special.”
“Special?!” she bellowed while leaping to her feet, shaking off his hold. “You rode off on your motorcycle in the middle of the night without a word. Like I was just another one of those girls who meant nothing to you.”
Though he tried in vain to reach for her hands, he didn’t stand, instead giving her the height advantage. When she twisted away from his reach, he calmly held out his hands to the side as he told her, “You were only seventeen, Chérie. True enough a woman in many ways, but things were more complicated than you realize.”
“Don’t call me that!” she snapped. Folding her arms over her chest, she continued in a forced calm. “Whatever. It really doesn’t matter. It’s in the past and I’m over it. But I thought we were at the very least friends. When you disappeared that night, you left a card with this address and a note that said I could always come here if I needed to or was in trouble. Does that offer still stand?”
For almost a minute, Cort simply stared up at her, as if trying to decipher something. Bitterly, she wondered to herself if he was trying to decide whether or not to toss her back on the street. Maybe he’d never meant for her to show up on his doorstep.
As she stared down into his stubborn face, she marked the subtle differences in the passing years. More than a decade had made her into a different woman than the girl he’d known, and the passing time had left its mark on him as well. His dark unruly hair was longer than it had been then, and wisps of gray had begun to creep in. The rough stubble was new as well. But she found she didn’t mind it. Even speckled with gray, it made him somehow more distinguished. So many physical differences were apparent, and she wondered if just as she was a different person, if he had changed so much as well.
He finally relented with a sigh, standing as he told her, “There will always be a place for you here. And I’ll always try to help if you’re in trouble, Tabitha. Never doubt that.”
She rubbed at her forehead, weary from the three days it had taken her to get to New Orleans. “It’s been a long road,” she admitted to him, changing the subject. “And I still seem to get a little bitchy when I’m tired, so if you can point me in the direction of a bed, I’d appreciate it. I’ll figure out in the morning where I’m going.”
Cort stepped forward to grip her shoulder in his large hand, reminding her of how small he always made her feel next to his large frame. “I mean what I said; stay as long as you need. I’ll help you figure out whatever is going on.”
She shrugged before walking back to the staircase where he’d dropped her bags, turning when she felt him stalking behind her. “It’s just stuff with my brothers. I just need to figure out what I’m doing next or where I’m going now.”
“You leave him or did he leave you?”
“The guy that’s been on your mind,” he told her as one eyebrow rose in challenge.
“There’s no one,” she quickly denied.
“Of course,” he just as quickly agreed and then changed the subject, much to her relief. “Stay long as you need, Chérie. I’ll take you round to Etienne in the morning to make introductions.”
At her surprised look, he laughed and answered, “Hunters don’t enter the Big Easy without old Etienne’s express permission, Chérie. Just the way it is.” He shook his head at her worried look. “No worries, Tabby. I’ll explain it all to you in the morning. And you can explain about this bit of trouble with your brothers.”
She scowled at the way he stressed the word brothers as if he didn’t believe her, but decided that arguing with him would only make it look worse.
After she glanced curiously up the stairs, Cort turned to point up them. “Second flood, first door on your right is a room you can use.”
“Thanks, Cort. I appreciate this,” she answered as she started up the steps.
Cort caught her arm after she’d gone up one step, turning her to face him with his hands resting at her hips. Standing up one step allowed her to look him more evenly in the eyes, though at over six feet, he still looked slightly down at her. She’d forgotten just how tall the man was.
With a sweet smile, he leaned forward to gently kiss her forehead, whispering, “Night, Chérie. And you should know one thing…I’ve never given the address of my family’s home to any other woman or to any hunter. Only people that know this place are normal people. And they’re not welcome here. No one else is.”
He left her without another word, still standing on the step and staring after him with a bewildered expression as she tried to piece together another part of the puzzle that was the first man she’d ever loved.
“So who’s this guy we’re going to see?” she curiously asked Cort the next morning as they strolled down the street together. He’d had breakfast ready and waiting for her that morning in a beautiful but cozy kitchen, but neither of them had spoken much. Too lost in their own thoughts it seemed.
“He’s a powerful man, ma chére.”
“Okay,” she lazily drew out. “Powerful how? And I don’t get why you say hunters need his permission to do anything.”
“Just the way our city is.” He looked over at Tabitha and then sighed at her annoyed look, shoving his hands into his jean pockets as he went on. “You ever remember coming to or workin’ a case in New Orleans?”
She mimicked his body posture, slipping her hands into her cutoff jean shorts as she walked. They’d been an improvisation. The city was hot and humid, and she hadn’t packed much for the weather of New Orleans. But she was making do. “I worked a string of brutal rapes and murders several years back. But we were only here a week before we caught the guy.”
Cort frowned. “You’re talking ’bout the FBI. I mean, did you ever remember workin’ a case here as a hunter? Or your daddy workin’ here?”
She frowned as well, trying to think back. She couldn’t remember even coming anywhere near New Orleans. “No. I guess not. Strange.” Especially given that hunters did talk about voodoo priests in the city. But then she remembered something. “Oh! But Dean said he worked a case here when we were apart. Ran into you, too.”
Cort let out a derisive snort. “That boy came here just to rile me up. And he ‘ran into me’ when I come ’round telling him to get out of the city.”
Grinding to a halt, she demanded, “What? Why? I don’t understand.”
He stopped as well, folding his arms imposingly over his chest and ignoring the dirty looks they were receiving from tourists that had to walk around them on the sidewalk. “That’s what I’m trying to explain here. Hunters aren’t welcome in this city. And your brother knew that, but come anyway to take on something he should have left to me.”
“But you’re a hunter and you live here,” she pointed out.
“And I was born in this city long before I started hunting. Old Etienne is the one that taught me a lot of what I know after my folks died. So I know the rules of this city. And I know to let Etienne handle most of what happens here. And he knows to keep his people in line so that I don’t have to step in.”
Cort sighed as he looked around the street, grabbing her arm to get her moving so they wouldn’t attract too much attention. “You know the stories, Chérie. New Orleans is steeped in hoodoo and voodoo. Outsiders—hunters especially—wouldn’t understand. Hunters tend to chase down anyone who practices those kinds of magic elsewhere. But those who practice voodoo band together in this city. And they are powerful here. There’s been a long held understanding that hunters stay out and let them have the city. So long as they don’t cross certain lines. So the voodoo priests police their own, and a few hunters like me are near enough to be a threat if they don’t keep their own in line. ‘Course, I’m on better terms with Etienne than other hunters. So I’m allowed to actually live in the city. Other hunters are forbidden from more than passing through.”
Tabitha thought for a while before asking, “So what’s going to make them allow me to stay in the city? Or who even says they have to know?”
He let out a dark laugh. “Oh, believe me, old Etienne knew you were coming here long before you did. But he’ll allow you to stay. Because I’ll vouch for you.”
They stopped outside a flashy looking shop with a sign that read: Madame Laveau’s House of Voodoo.
She snorted as he held the door open for her. “This is where we meeting some all-important voodoo priest? Cliché much?”
He stopped her in the doorway with a hand on her elbow, bending down to whisper warningly in her ear, “Be careful what you say here. It might not look like much, but this place is just for the tourists. Etienne usually works here during the day to make money from foolish Northerners looking to bring back Southern souvenirs of New Orleans Voodoo, but he’s no fake. He’s the real deal, and not a man to be trifled with. He’s got a real shop somewhere else.”
Before they’d come very far into the previously empty shop, they heard a voice calling out from a back room. “Take h’er out of ma cit’ay now!” the shaky, and heavily Creole accented voice shouted from the back, the volume increasing as he came towards them. Although the inside of the shop was currently empty, Tabitha figured the tourists would start pouring in later in the day. Everywhere she looked, she saw showy looking voodoo trinkets. Though from what little she knew, the herbs and talismans were mostly harmless.
“Come on, Etienne,” Cort pleaded with a winning smile as an old man teetered in from the back. His hair was white as snow, but his wrinkled skin was as dark as coal as he leaned heavily on a carved, bone-handled cane.
An angry look was plastered on the old man’s face as he pointed at Tabitha. “You brin’ da’kness an’ death to ma cit’ay. ‘Eye do not want you ‘ere. Go now.”
Cort held his hands out in a placating gesture. “Come on, Etienne. I’ll vouch for Tabitha. She won’t bring any trouble to your followers. She’s not here hunting. Not here to kill anyone or anything.”
“E’s no h’er huntin’ ‘eye fears. Is wa’s huntin’ h’er tha’ ‘eye do not wan’ in ma cit’ay,” he told them, his accent becoming thicker in his anger until Tabitha could barely decipher his words. He slipped into French for a minute before calming himself and telling Tabitha more clearly, “You an’ yer broth’aires have begun tha End. But you bring tha da’kness an’ death. It stalks yer dreams…but soon it will find you. ‘Eye do not want you in ma cit’ay when it does. T’ings es har’d enough wit’d tha demons an’ spirits stirr’d up by Satan hisself comin’. We wan’ na part in yer troubles.”
Cort sputtered as he turned to stare at Tabitha, but she sidestepped him, moving forward to grab the old man’s arm.
“Are you talking about what’s in my blood? Is that what you’re talking about?” she pleaded, suddenly feeling desperate. She was astounded by what he knew, but she’d known a psychic, and Pamela had been more than helpful. If this man knew what was in her, could he help her get rid of it?
The old man had once been tall, but was stooped by age, forced to lean heavily on his cane as he stared up into Tabitha’s eyes.
“‘Eyes know what e’s in yer blood. But it e’s not tha’ same da’kness as wha’s comin’ fer you. E’s tha da’kness an’ death you were made for tha ‘eyes wan’ no part of,” he slowly told her.
The darkness I was made for? she wondered to herself. She didn’t understand his words, so she pushed it aside as she asked instead, “Is there anything you can do to get rid of what’s in my blood? Will that help?”
Moving faster than an old man should have been able to, and faster even than her eyes could track, the old man swiped his free hand across the top of the hand she’s placed on his arm to stop him. As Tabitha glanced down, she saw a line of blood begin to well up across the skin behind her knuckles.
“Ow!” she belatedly cried, surprised by the old man’s speed. “What the hell was that for?” she demanded as she went to snatch her bleeding hand back.
With surprising strength, Etienne held her hand in place against his forearm, and before she knew what he was doing, he had leaned over her to lick along the back of her hand.
This time, he released her when she jerked herself away, wiping the back of her hand on her leg before cradling it protectively against her stomach. “Eww!” she couldn’t help childishly complaining.
The old man seemed to swish her blood around in his mouth before turning his head to spit on the floor. Tabitha wrinkled her nose at the action, stepping back into Cort as he placed his hands protectively on her shoulders from behind.
For a moment, Etienne stared into her eyes like he was weighing her soul, but then his eyes snapped up to Cort’s over her shoulder, ordering him, “Git h’er out of ma cit’ay.”
“You got no right to order her out of your city, Etienne. She hasn’t broken the peace between us. And I promise she won’t,” Cort told him in low but unmistakably threatening tones.
“Ya make promises ya can’no keep, boy,” Etienne warned in return.
The two men stared at each other in a tense standoff. Tabitha was more than ready to flee not only the shop, but also the city, more than unnerved by the morning’s events and what Etienne inexplicably knew. But Cort’s hands held her planted in front of him, forcing her to become part of the tense standoff.
The silence between the two men was broken when a dark-skinned girl of only ten or twelve suddenly appeared out of the back room, tugging on Etienne’s sleeve to gain his attention, even though her eyes were glued deferentially to the floor.
A quick exchange in French was had between the pair, and then the girl with pigtails in her hair scurried out of the room. But whatever she had said had only ratcheted the tension in the room up several notches, nearly choking Tabitha with its thickness. Whatever the exchange had been, Cort had apparently understood, and didn’t like, if the way his fingers dug into Tabitha’s shoulders were any indication anyway.
“Momma Cecile wish’as ta speak wit’d you,” he slowly told her. “Sh’ay has said tha’ sh’ay will consult wit’d tha spirits ’bout you. An’ when sh’ays done, we will sen’ fo’re you. But you’s can stay in our cit’ay for now.” He looked back to Cort again. “Take h’er an’ go, boy. Bu’td you bes’ be car’ful crossin’ m’ey ov’ah a wo’man.”
“I mean you no disrespect, Etienne. You taught me many things, old friend. But don’t ask me to make a choice between you and her. We’ll wait for you to send word.”
“Seem to m’ey tha’ da choice done been made, Cort,” the old man woodenly responded.
Cort didn’t answer, instead, pulled backwards on Tabitha until they had backed all the way out of the shop, then grabbed her hand and began tugging her down the sidewalk at a fast pace.
She jogged to keep up with his longer stride, tugging on his hand as she demanded, “What the hell just happened back there? What was all of that about? And why did he lick my hand?!”
Cort whirled around to face her, angrily telling her, “For once, Tabitha, don’t argue with me and don’t be stubborn. Just hold onto your questions until we get back to my place.”
She glared at him, but did bite her tongue, letting him tug her along as he hailed a cab.
As soon as they walked through Cort’s front door, he began silently stalking through the main floor. Unable to tell what he was looking for, Tabitha started to ask him the questions he’d wanted her to hold off on. But she’d no more than opened her mouth when he jabbed his hand up in the air.
“Just wait until I say so, Tabitha,” he angrily told her. He’d been silently fuming from the moment they’d left Etienne’s shop, but all Tabitha wanted was some answers, damn Cort’s anger.
“Fine,” she nevertheless growled, standing in the middle of his foyer with her arms folded over her chest.
After Cort had finished making his rounds of the house, he came back to tug on one of her hands again, pulling her along through the main floor and back to the kitchen where they’d had breakfast a few hours before.
“I’m getting a little tired of you tugging me around like a five-year-old,” she informed him.
“I figured we’d talk here in the kitchen,” he replied over his shoulder by way of answer.
When they arrived in the kitchen, he released her hand and gestured to one of the tall barstools at the massive, square center island.
“Now talk,” he ordered as he walked to the far side of the island, folding his arms over his chest as he stared across the way at her.
“What was with the commando routine of you running around the house when we got back?” she asked as she sat on the barstool.
“Making sure my protection spells and talismans were still in place so we’re not overheard. Now don’t change the subject, Tabitha. Talk! What was that all about back there? Did your brothers really start all this? The End Times—the freakin’ Apocalypse!” She winced at the way he said her name. It was her full name now that he was angry. Not Tab, Tabby cat, Chérie, or even ma chére. Tabitha. It was almost as bad as being three-named by her mother. At least what she remembered from her childhood and getting into trouble.
She leaned back in the barstool, crossing her arms over her chest to mirror his stubborn posture.
He snorted at her silence. “Silence says a lot, too, Chérie. I was suspicious of your timing. Things are going to hell all over the world, and that’s the time you suddenly decide to take a break from your brothers? Shoulda figured it was something big like them triggering the end of the goddamned world.”
She eased slightly at him letting up on her name and using a familiar endearment instead. “What do you expect me to say, Cort? They’re my brothers. I’m not gonna tell you anything you or anyone else could use against them.”
A frown spread on his face. “You really think I’d do that, Tabby? It’d only hurt you in the end.” His voice dropped as he muttered to himself, “Even if I’d like to beat on that little shit, Dean for a while.” He looked back up at her as he continued with a serious look. “But I need to know what’s really going on. From what Etienne said, this is big. And Momma Cecile herself wants to see you.”
“How can you understand a word of what Etienne said? I felt like I needed subtitles. Or a translator. Do all voodoo priests or whatever sound like bad Hollywood B-film stereotypes?”
Cort nearly cracked a smile, but visibly controlled it as he explained, “Etienne can speak perfect English or French when he wants to. He probably thought the stereotypical accent would do better at scaring you. I think he was right. When Etienne’s not concentrating, he loses a goodly portion of that thick Creole show he was putting on for you. Or when he’s mad or…scared…he slips into French.” Tabitha knew they were both remembering his devolution into French as he yelled at her to leave. Cort shook himself and briskly added, “Not that I questioned his fear after Momma Cecile demanded your audience.”
She leaned forward to fold her arms on the countertop. “Yeah, who is she and what does that mean?”
“Momma Cecile is Etienne’s mother. As powerful as he is, he’s got nothing on her.”
“His mother?” she asked in disbelief. “What is she, a hundred and fifty?”
Cort gave a dismissive shrug. “She’s old,” was all he’d say. “But more importantly, powerful. And her asking to meet with you is a very bad thing, Tabitha. I’ve only met her once. Not long after my parents were killed and old Etienne took me under his wing to teach me how to hunt. He said she wanted to take her measure of me. But all she did…was just sorta…stare at me.” He grunted and guardedly added, “She never said a damn word to me. Just flicked her fingers at me, and Etienne pulled me out and sent me home. Said I had her blessings. Don’t think I slept for a week after that.”
Tabitha shivered at the true fear and terror in Cort’s voice, and wondered if his fear and terror had been justified, or just the imaginings of an adolescent boy.
She cleared her throat and changed the topic. “They don’t seem to like hunters, so why’d he teach you how to hunt?” The subject of Cort’s parents had mostly been a taboo one years before when they’d briefly dated. He’d told her only that they’d been killed and that was why he hunted. That he hadn’t wanted to speak more about them had been no surprise to a seventeen-year-old Tabitha with issues of her own. She hadn’t been any more enthused about broaching the subject of her mother.
Cort’s eyes closed tightly at whatever memory had surfaced in his mind, and she’d almost resigned herself to the fact that he wasn’t going to tell her anything when he let out a reluctant sigh.
“It’s a long story, Chérie, but suffice to say that my parents were killed by a couple they trusted. Witches—though they didn’t know that. The couple was on the board of a company my parents were majority owners of, and they wanted to take control of it themselves…”
When he trailed off to collect himself, she gently probed, “So how does Etienne fit into this? Did he know them? Were they some of his followers who went too far?”
With an exasperated look, Cort continued, “This is why normal hunters aren’t allowed into New Orleans. Voodoo and witchcraft aren’t the same. And those who practice voodoo hate witches. Though I’ll grant you that there are a lot of similarities between the two. The biggest difference between witchcraft and New Orleans Voodoo though? It’s Etienne and his mother.”
“What?” she asked, shaking her head. “I don’t understand.”
“There’s a lot of things done in voodoo that most hunters would never understand or accept. Even I have a hard time with some of it. Those who practice voodoo in New Orleans are powerful because they band together. They can raise ghosts and keep them tied here and serving generations of their families. But they can also keep those ghosts from losing themselves and becoming vengeful spirits. I’ve never seen a witch that can do some of what Etienne and his family can do. And so there’s a lot of hate and resentment between the two groups.”
“So why’d these two witches come into New Orleans to kill your parents?”
“Money. Greed, plain and simple,” he answered. “They wanted my father’s largest company. An international shipping company that had been in my family for generations.”
“You still haven’t explained how Etienne fits into this. Other than to say that he and his followers hate witches,” she pointed out. She glanced around the elaborate kitchen. “I’ve seen enough witches to understand their greed, so I get that they wanted the wealth of your family. There was obviously a lot of it by the looks of this place. I had no idea you came from this kind of money.”
“Yeah,” he agreed with a careless shrug. “My family had old money. But it never really mattered to me. It killed my parents in the end, so I never really saw much point in it. Although I’ll admit it makes the life of a hunter a bit easier.”
“I guess,” she muttered under her breath. “Bet you’ve never had to run credit card scams for dough.”
He finally broke into a small, but genuine laugh. “I have done it, just so you don’t feel too left out. There’s been plenty of times I didn’t want something tracing back to me here in New Orleans.”
“So how do you explain all of your disappearances from here when you’re hunting?” she wondered.
He grinned a bit as his chin lifted, almost visibly puffing up as he proclaimed, “I’m a rich playboy. Eccentricity is just part and parcel.”
“Rich playboy?” she repeated, straining to keep a straight face. Her nose wrinkled a little as she commented, “And people actually buy that, huh? Guess people’ll believe anything.”
Cort laughed and theatrically pressed his hands over his heart. “How you wound me, Chérie. I always thought I was at least a little better than average looking.
Tabitha’s eyes lingered on the snug fit of his low-slung jeans and tight fitted t-shirt, both displaying the tightly toned muscles and narrow hips he still maintained more sharply than any gym rat. Even after more than 10 years—and dressed in a loose flannel shirt—he could have stepped right off the cover of a fashion magazine. His clothes didn’t scream rich playboy, but they were easily overlooked when his body pulled a woman’s stare in.
Realizing he’d caught her staring when he almost started preening; she cleared her throat and looked away. “Your family?” she reminded him, trying to steer them both back on topic.
He laughed knowingly, but picked the conversation back up. “Right. So to make the story shorter, these witches killed my folks, meant to kill me, too, but I went to stay with a friend at the last minute when my parents were having the Thompsons over for dinner. When I came home and found my folks…well, kids always said that old Etienne was the real thing. That he had real magic…real power. And I just knew there was something off about those people.” He gave her a sly grin. “Northerners for one.” He sobered and continued, “But I had this dog that just hated them, barked anytime they were near. And kids always said that neighborhood cats disappeared where they lived. So I went to old Etienne, told him about what happened. And he believed me. Told me he’d take care of them. Next day, they were gone. No one ever saw them again.”
“So how’d he go from taking out a couple of witches to teaching you to hunt?”
Cort nodded a little as he began pacing in the kitchen, stopping to glance her way every so often as he continued his tale. “You see, there was always fighting between the voodoo practitioners and hunters. But back in the early 1800’s, a very powerful voodoo priestess came to power—you’d of heard of her at least, Marie Laveau—and she banded all the Creoles that practiced voodoo together, and they drove hunters out of this part of Louisiana. And there was a lot of fighting between the two for years after, but eventually, an agreement was reached, that so long as Marie’s followers stayed in New Orleans, and no innocent people were harmed, they’d be allowed to have this city. And the peace was kept. Mostly because everyone feared Marie like you wouldn’t believe, especially her own followers. You didn’t want to cross her. And they feared the hunters returning, too, to kill them all or drive them off again.”
“So, now, Etienne and his mother keep them all in check?”
“Yeah,” Cort agreed. “But they still need the threat of hunters. Both to help keep their own people in line, but also to make sure the rest of the hunters stay out of New Orleans.”
“So Etienne saw you as his opportunity to have a hunter under his thumb that he knew and had taught?”
“It’s not quite like that, Tab,” Cort returned, moving closer to the center island as he bent down to lean against it on his forearms and look across the counter into her eyes. “Etienne knows that having a hunter nearby is a necessity. It keeps his people in line—and I can take care of things that have nothing to do with his followers—but the threat of a hunter only works if he’s not under Etienne’s thumb. I help keep other hunters out to keep the peace from that side, but Etienne knows I’d come after him or his people if they didn’t uphold their part of the bargain. If they started hurtin’ people. Only way to keep both sides honest, is if both sides know that the threat from the other is real. But Etienne taught me and wanted me to become a hunter because he’s even less fond of outsiders than most. And since hunters and their kids don’t generally grow up in this city, it can be hard to find a hunter that isn’t an outsider.”
“Unless Etienne molds his own,” Tabitha finished. “Still not sure that it doesn’t make you under his thumb. He definitely didn’t seem to like you siding with me earlier.”
He gave her a pointed look. “Which brings us back to your part in this tale, Tab. I’ve let you distract from the topic long enough. Now you better start telling me what’s going on. Fill in some of blanks about what’s happening and just what I’ve sided with you on and risked the peace Etienne and I have managed to hold for some years now. Is this really the Apocalypse, and did your brothers start it?”
“I refuse to be the one to lay blame here,” she shot back. “Because I hold the angels more responsible for starting it all than them.”
“Angels?” he asked doubtfully. “No such thing.”
“You got any beer?” she sighed. “This would all go down a lot easier with some beer.”
He stepped to the fridge to pull out two bottles, plunking one down in front of her as he ordered, “Now, talk.”
It was after noon by the time Tabitha had laid out the main plot points that had brought her to New Orleans, even briefly explaining to Cort about the demon blood that was now in her.
The three beers had helped in telling the story, but it had been exhausting sorting through what to tell him and what not to. A lot of it dealing with her brothers she glossed over since it wasn’t her place to tell, but she was surprised with how easily she’d been able to tell Cort the rest. She figured he didn’t need to know about Sam’s demon related activities. Or the specifics of the seals her brothers broke to free Lucifer.
But the things involving her—what she could now do—she told him all about.
Most of it anyway.
She told him about the angels she knew. Except for one in particular.
“Well…shit,” had been all Cort had said when she finished, and then he’d silently turned around, busying himself with making lunch it seemed.
She couldn’t blame him, setting Lucifer free and triggering the Apocalypse was a lot to take in in one discussion. Not to mention the rest of it.
“Do you really think Etienne or this Momma Cecile can help me?” she finally asked him. She still couldn’t help but feel that things would be simpler and easier if she could get the demon blood out of her. Not to mention her hearing angels and seeing reapers. If she could get rid of all that…be normal again.
“Chérie, I just don’t know what to tell you,” he sighed, not turning away from the cooktop to face her. “What’s going on, what you’re involved in… It’s deep dark stuff…and I just don’t know. All I can say is maybe it’s best that Momma Cecile is weighing in. And it terrifies me that she seems like the best option, because she’s terrifyingly powerful.”
They ate their meal in silence, washing it down with more beer. Tabitha had hoped that Cort might have some ideas to help her out, but he seemed lost in considering all she’d told him.
“I think I’m gonna go lay down for a while,” she told him after the meal. Cort didn’t have the air-conditioning in the house turned on, and the warm breeze wafting through the windows was making her sleepy.
Cort caught her hand to stop her. “Tabitha, I want you to know that you can always come to me. No matter what’s going on. And I’ll always try to help you. I’ll always be here for you. We’ll figure something out,” he assured her, reaching out with his other hand to tuck a few strands of hair behind her ear.
“Why?” she wondered, staring up at him in shock at his promise and utter conviction.
“You may not understand this, Tabitha, but I care about you more than you know. Always have. And I’ve always been here waiting for you.”
She tugged her hand away from him. Anger coursed through her at hearing the words from him that she’d have given anything to have heard a decade before. But they were too late now. She wasn’t the same girl anymore. “You left me that night ten years ago,” she reminded him. “How the hell can you say that you’ve always been waiting for me?”
Cort was undeterred by her anger, his hand reaching up to cup her jaw. “I left because it was the right thing to do. Your father told me to move on and let you be. Believe me, it was the last thing I wanted to do, but Dean and your daddy were right. You weren’t ready yet. You needed to go your own way in life for a while. So when they kindly asked me to leave, I knew it was the right choice. The only choice.”
For a moment, Tabitha felt her world shatter to realize something she’d thought of one way for so long had been so wrong. She’d never even realized Dean or her father had known about her and Cort. They’d been so careful not to be caught by her family. She’d known they wouldn’t approve, but she hadn’t realized Dean and her father had chased him off. “You could have told me,” she whispered.
“And what, would you have run away with me?” he gently teased, trying to give a lighthearted smile. “Left your father and brothers behind? Everything you knew at that point. They’d have never let me stay with you. Running would have been our only option.”
She turned her face up to stare into his eyes. “I might have,” she admitted.
“You needed to stay with them. At least for a while. You needed to be able to make your own choices and become your own woman. You’d have become someone else if you’d run off with me. And I can’t imagine you becoming a dutiful little wife that trailed around after her husband hunting. I wanted to see you become the woman you are now. Strong-willed.” He chuckled again. “Stubborn. But always your own woman. Able to stand on your own and know exactly what you want.”
Tabitha wasn’t so sure about that. More and more, she was afraid that she had no idea what she wanted.
“You could have said goodbye at least. Could have at least given me the choice as to whether or not I went with you. Unless you were afraid of being stuck with me,” she stubbornly maintained, angered at all the men in her life for them trying to make choices for her.
He made a regretful noise when she looked down and away from him.
“Tabitha, I was afraid to come say goodbye to you.” Her head jerked up in surprise as he softly continued, “It wasn’t that I was afraid that you would want to run away with me. I was afraid that you wouldn’t want to. I knew your daddy and brother were right, and that you deserved to live some on your own and make your own choices, but I was afraid that if I came to say goodbye to you, it’d ’bout break my heart if you just said goodbye to me and didn’t want to come away with me. I was a coward, but I just couldn’t stand the thought that you wouldn’t care if I left.”
Before she could respond, Cort bent down, fiercely kissing her, and then pulling away to disappear again before she could gather her wits or even take a gulp of air.
She was left to grumble to herself, “That man is just determined to keep leaving me without allowing me to say a word.”
“You know what they say isn’t right, don’t you?” Pamela asked as she and Tabitha lay beside each other on the balcony off her room at Cort’s house.
“What isn’t right?” she asked as she rolled to lay on her side on the chaise lounge, enjoying the soft breeze that the second floor balcony offered to temper the warm Southern air. She wasn’t used to the stifling humidity of New Orleans summers.
“It isn’t darkness and death you’ll bring,” her friend insisted in return. “It’s peace you’ll bring. Peace for the whole world.”
If it hadn’t been for the strange conversation she’d had with Etienne in his shop, she might not have realized it, but she was suddenly certain that the woman next to her wasn’t really Pamela. Her actions and the way she talked just didn’t seem like the former psychic. And now that she thought about it, Pamela’s last words to her had been that Tabitha would be death or bring death or something similar.
“Who are you?” Tabitha demanded as she sat up on the lounge, tugging on the ragged edges of her cutoff shorts as she leaned forward to demand, “Or better yet, what are you? Because you’re not my friend Pamela.”
Whatever was trying to look like her friend smiled at her in return, turning to sit upright to face Tabitha. “I never said I was Pamela. I’m merely borrowing her image. But I could be your friend. We can help each other so much.”
“What are you? And why do you look like my friend?” Tabitha demanded, leaning forward to pin the other “woman” in a hard stare.
“As I said, I’m just borrowing dear Pamela’s image. I have to make do with it at the moment to talk with you. Until I’m united with my vessel.”
Tabitha slowly climbed to her feet, backing up until her back ran into the side of Cort’s house. “You’re an angel.”
“Right you are,” the angel replied with a winning smile.
“But how are you here in my dream? How did you find me, and how is it I can’t feel that you’re an angel like I can with the others?”
The angel leaned backwards, bracing her arms behind her as she replied, “I’m a bit stronger than your normal angel, my dear. That little angel of yours, Castiel, might have been able to hide you from most—but I’m not most angels. Besides, one could say we were made for each other.” The angel gave a little laugh. “So I can find you more easily than most. Though I will admit, little Castiel has made it more difficult than I imagined it would be. I’ve had to settle for looking in your dreams since I can’t find where you really are. But it’s no matter,” she finished, sitting back up and lightly wiping her hands against each other. “I had no intention of giving you a hard sell like my brothers are attempting with your brothers. I only wanted to meet you, make you see that we can help each other out…and be good friends to each other.”
Tabitha’s eyes clenched shut as the pieces fell into place. “You’re an angel, and you’re saying I’m your vessel, aren’t you? But you need my permission, so that’s why you want me to think you’re my friend.”
“Oh, I can be your friend, Tabitha. You’ll see,” the angel corrected. An annoyed huffed sounded from the angel. “Oh! Open your eyes,” she groused in return, gesturing back to the lounge chair Tabitha had vacated. “I’m not my brothers. I’m not going to threaten and hurt you or your brothers. And I’m not going to try to sell you on empty promises like vengeance or some ridiculous idea like that. I need your help, and soon, you’re going to need my help.”
Knowing that if the angel had any intention of hurting her—or the power to have done so—that she would have already done it, Tabitha cautiously came back to sit across from the angel, still amazed that she felt nothing of her power. Even in dreams, she’d been able to sense the angelic power within Castiel.
“So, what do I call you?” Tabitha wondered. Nameless angel seemed kinda silly.
She shrugged at the question. “For now, why don’t we just keep it simple and go with Pam. I like it.”
“Well…Pam…just how is it you think we’re going to be BFF’s and just what do you think we’re going to help each other with?”
Pam scooted forward on the lounge. “Now you’re on the right track. We’re more alike than you can possibly realize, Tabitha. Feuding brothers. The older brother protective but thinks he always knows best. A younger brother that idolizes his older brother but is easily seduced by power. Absent, mostly clueless fathers. And most strikingly similar, us. The sister stuck in the middle that loves both her brothers and just wants them to stop fighting. I don’t want to see my brothers go all cage-fighter trying to destroy each other. And I don’t want to see them use your brothers to do it either.”
“My brothers…” Tabitha trailed off as a horrifying feeling sank in. She previously knew from Pam that Dean was Michael’s vessel. “Sam is Lucifer’s vessel, isn’t he?” she demanded in a harsh whisper.
“Yeah,” Pam confirmed with a sad smile. “See now why it was destiny that you are mine? But we can help each other stop this. We can help each other stop their fighting.”
“Just say yes,” Pam advised her, reaching out to hold Tabitha’s slack hands in her own. “They don’t have to fight each other. Together, you and I can stop it all. Make sure it never even happens.”
Tabitha stood, yanking her hands away from the angel. “No. I won’t say yes to you. If I’ve learned one thing about angels, it’s not to trust any of you.”
Pam stood as well, giving her a pitying look as she replied, “Not any of us, huh? You will. You’ll say yes eventually. But do us both a favor. Do the whole world a favor. Say yes before the demons get a hold of you again. Things won’t end well if my little brother or the demons get a hold of you before you say yes to me.” She reached out, gliding her fingers across Tabitha’s cheek with the gentleness of a lover as she bid farewell. “I’ll see you again.”
Tabitha batted away the hand stroking her face, sitting up on the lounge chair to see Cort crouched beside her.
He pulled his hand back from her face as he worriedly asked, “Are you alright, Chérie? You were tossing in your sleep.”
She blinked as she looked around at the same balcony she had been on in her dream with the angel. Looking back at Cort, she shook away the last vestiges of the strange dream. “I’m fine,” she assured him.
Cort’s mouth pressed into a thin line as he rocked back on his heels. “I come up to ask you a few more questions,” he explained. “I’ve been trying to research a bit about Lucifer—” he snorted and said almost to himself,” —there’s something I never thought I’d say and mean—” He cleared his throat and continued. “But anyway, it’s become pretty apparent from what you said, and things happening around the world, that this is really going down, and I’m just trying to figure out what we can do to get out ahead of it.”
“And stop Lucifer?” she asked him with an ironic smile, thinking to herself that even a year ago, she’d have laughed herself silly at a conversation about stopping Lucifer. She wrapped her arms around her legs as she wearily asked him, “Find any secret weapons for stopping the Devil himself?”
Cort pulled the other lounge chair closer, sitting on it as he spread his knees on either side of Tabitha, bending down a bit to look her in the eyes. “You’re really not all right, Tabby cat. You keep saying you are, but you look like hell.”
She tried to push away from him to stand, but Cort had effectively blocked her escape, and his strong hands on her shoulders kept her from rising. “Sorry if I look like shit, Cort. Didn’t realize the Apocalypse was an occasion for looking my best. I’ll go throw some makeup on.”
“That’s not what I mean,” Cort argued. “You hardly ate anything today. Barely picked at both breakfast and lunch. I wondered about it last night, but I can see now that all of your clothes are damn near hanging off you. You’re not taking care of yourself. And I know you’ve got some bad worries on your mind—we’ve all been worried about what’s been brewing around the world—but I think you need to cut loose a little and remember what there is that’s worth saving.”
She gave him an incredulous look. “That’s your suggestion? The world’s ending at any moment, but let’s go have a good time?”
“There’s nothing we can do about it tonight, Tab. So yeah, I’m suggesting we go have a good time,” he told her, his arms reaching around her shoulders to grab the end of her ponytail, tugging on her hair until her head had to tilt back and up to look him in the eye. “Maybe that was part of the trouble you were having with your brothers. Sounds to me like all that the three of you were doing anymore was bickering and fighting. Now I’ve seen you three do plenty of that, but it sounds like you’d forgotten how to have fun with each other, too.”
With her arms crossed stubbornly over her chest, she asked, “So just what are you suggesting?”
He released her to spread his arms out wide, grinning as he said, “This is New Orleans, ma chére. One thing we know is how to have a good time.”
“You want to go party while the Apocalypse is brewing? That’s ridiculous. We should be trying to figure out how to stop this. I’ve got an old bible with a passage I’ve been trying to translate—”
Long fingers pressed over her lips to shush her as Cort interrupted, “And the Apocalypse will still be brewing tomorrow. I promise, I’ll spend however long it takes helping you research and translate anything you’ve got. We’ll figure something out. Find something. But tonight, you’re cutting loose and dancing with me.” As he finished, he stood, grabbing her hand and pulling her to her feet despite her protests.
“Dance?” she sputtered.
“Yup. Dance,” he confirmed. “Go put on something comfortable. I know a little place that serves great drinks, and plays the best live music.” He ushered her into the palatial room he’d assigned her, grabbing her bags and riffling through them despite her continued protests for him to leave her things alone.
“You really need some cooler clothes, darling,” he grinned at her. “You can’t cover up this much in New Orleans.”
She yanked a pair of jeans out of his hands. “Fine, I’ll make another pair of cutoff shorts,” she grumbled as he began digging through her clothes for an appropriate top.
It seemed ridiculous to take time out now to go dancing when they should be researching, but she couldn’t help wondering if he was right. Would things have fallen apart with her brothers if they’d remembered to still have a little fun now and then?
Would things have fallen apart with Castiel if she’d still been able to sit and talk with him like they’d done in the beginning?
One of her skimpier halter-tops hit her in the face as she stood staring into space, and she grabbed it with a dirty look at the laughing brick-wall of a man that had thrown it at her.
“Why are you doing all of this for me?” she suddenly asked him. “Why do you even care? Especially after what I’ve told you about both the angels and demons hunting me.”
Cort lounged sideways on her bed, stretching out before he thoughtfully told her, “I already explained, Tabitha. I’ll always be here to help you.”
“You left me,” she reminded him.
“And you were only seventeen,” he reminded her. “You weren’t ready for what I wanted from you. I was only trying to do my best by you. Look, I know that in your memory, I’m the villain of that story, but there’s always another side to things, Tabitha. Things going on that you don’t know from standing on your side of it. Maybe it wasn’t fair that you didn’t know why I left and that you got hurt by me trying to do right by you, but I’ll take being the villain in your eyes if that’s what it takes to do right by you. It made you the strong woman you are now. You went on to become an FBI agent. None of that would’ve happened if you’d run away with me. And a part of you knew I wasn’t quite the villain of your story anyway. Else, you wouldn’t be here now. You knew that no matter what was going on in your life, you could still come here, and I’d still help you.”
He sighed and propped his head up with his elbow against the bed. “Any man that isn’t willing to let you hurl a bit of hate at him for a while to do right by you and keep you safe, ain’t a man that deserves you in the end.”
Tabitha held the clothes in her hands as she sat on the edge of the bed in front of Cort, smiling at the way his hand snaked around her waist and pulled her closer into his body. He reached up to kiss the exposed flesh of her arm, but she frowned when an image of Castiel surfaced in her mind at Cort’s touch. Had Castiel just been trying to protect her, too?
“Why is it that the men I’ve cared for have to drive me to both love and hate them?” she wondered. “Is that the truth?” she continued, turning to look over her shoulder at Cort behind her. “Does every man think I’m incapable of looking out for myself so they’ve got to make decisions for me and hurt me in the process of ‘protecting’ me?”
Cort released his hold on her, flopping onto his back as he stared up at the ceiling, almost looking defeated. “I never wanted to hurt you, Tabitha. But I wouldn’t change what I did. You weren’t ready for me at seventeen.” He moved his arm, pulling it over his face as he continued, “Our timing is just terrible, isn’t it? You’re too young, or you’re seeing someone else. And now that you’re here in my home, your mind is stuck on some other guy.” He tossed over onto his side again, propping his head up again to ask, “It’s not that Fed partner of yours though. You talk like this guy is still alive. And I know the Fed is dead.”
Tabitha looked at Cort curiously, but wasn’t sure she wanted to know how he’d known she’d been sleeping with her former partner Casey. “He’s still alive,” she confirmed. “But let’s just leave it at that. Things were too…complicated with him.”
He nodded thoughtfully, reaching up to teasingly tug her hair again. “I’m a patient man,” he assured her. “I waited for you to live your life by your choices, and I can wait for your anger towards my choices to cool and you to forget this man. I’ll keep waiting for you, Tabitha. Long as it takes.”
She had thought it would give her some hope or comfort to hear Cort say that. Deep down, she knew there was still some love for him in her heart. But it was the kind of love she would always hold for him. A young, bittersweet kind for the first man she’d ever been with. First man she’d kissed…loved…everything. But it was a love that she realized would always stay in the past. One she’d outgrown.
Turning on the bed, she reached out to run her hand along Cort’s jaw. “Maybe waiting’s foolish. I’m not sure I’ll ever get over him. And it’s not fair to you to make you wait for something that isn’t going to happen,” she whispered, feeling a sharp pain in her stomach when she realized the excuse she was giving him to move on just might be the truth.
“Never asked for fair. And I’m a patient man,” he insisted, his eyes closing as he savored her touch.
After a moment, his dark eyes opened, twinkling as he looked back up at her. “Get dressed, darling. We’re still going dancing. The Devil can wait.”
*Note — Chérie is French and roughly translates as darling or beloved. Ma chére means my dear.
A/N: Sorry for the wait and the cliffy. Summer is hectic for me. But I hope you enjoy the new chapter! I know there was no Castiel, but he’ll be back. Promise. And I promise I’m not replacing him. But sometimes, another man is needed to give the right nudge in the right direction at the right time. And Cort will serve several purposes. Just trust me.
Be sure to leave review love!