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Read a sample from GARDEN OF DREAMS AND DESIRES by Kristen Painter

Fae and vampires collide in the lush surrounding of New Orleans, in the thrilling conclusion to this urban fantasy series by House of Comarré author Kristen Painter

Chapter One

Kindness is often mistaken for weakness. This is not a mistake your enemies should make twice.

— Elektos Codex 9.2.10

New Orleans, Louisiana, 2068

One witch to rule them all.

Giselle almost laughed out loud at the cleverness of her thought. Instead, she kept her giddiness to a smile. A tourist passing through Jackson Square smiled back. Giselle let the woman think it was an invitation to duck under the pavilion Giselle had set up for reading fortunes, not her rising anticipation of what was to come.

The woman kept walking. Giselle’s smile disappeared. One day after Mardi Gras and the city was still thick with tourists carrying on like the party had yet to end. She didn’t mind. Much. It suited her purposes. Today might be a bust, however. It was afternoon and she’d yet to have anyone she could use sit across from her. Soon, when the spell she and Zara were working on was cast, she’d never have to sit here and pander to the masses again.

A young man approached her booth, a nearly empty plastic cup of beer clutched in one hand. “You’re too pretty to be a fortune‑teller.”

She studied him. Expensive wristwatch. Manicured nails. Alligator loafers. This was not your average college boy. She smiled coyly. “Is that so? How should I look?”

He ducked under the ivory pavilion. “You know, wart on the nose, scarf on the head, that sort of thing.”

He’d been drinking for a while, based on the cloud of alcohol surrounding him. She shrugged. “I’m sorry to disappoint you.”

“I’m not disappointed.” He drained the last of his beer and set the empty cup near the small ivory placard that displayed her prices in simple black font.

Beneath the pristine white velvet draping her table, she dug her nails into her palm to keep from hexing him. She pointed a few yards away. “There’s a trash can over there.”

He left the empty cup where it was and sat on the folding stool across from her. He stuck his palm out. He had the smooth hands of someone who’d never done manual labor. “Tell me my fortune.”

She thought about telling him she was closed, but a sixth sense made her wait it out. She tapped the top of her sign. “One, you must pay me first, and two, I don’t read palms. I read crystals.”

He dug into the pocket of his shorts, pulled out a wad of plastic bills and dropped a few on the table. Quite a bit more than her rate. She didn’t correct his mistake. He put the rest away and put his open hand back on the table. “How about now?”

“I still don’t read palms.” She tucked the plastic away, then placed a tall silver cup filled with crystals in front of him and went into her spiel. “I am Giselle, mistress of the crystals and keeper of the light. Cover the—”

“I’m Robbie.”

She lifted her hand. “No names. I prefer to work without influence. Now, cover the cup with your hand and think about one question you’d like to have answered, but don’t tell me what it is. Keep the question in your mind.”

Laughing like it was all a big game, he put his hand over the cup and squeezed his eyes tight. A moment later, he opened them. “Okay, I thought of a question.”

Giselle took the cup from him. “Very good.” Since Ian had tattooed her with a crystal, the source of her power, her ability to read the crystals was sharper than ever, which proved that his inherent gift was an extraordinary one. Even so, she whispered a few words over the crystals for clarity and guidance, then tipped the container and spilled the stones across the velvet. They twinkled with a rainbow of colors despite the shade of the pavilion. She stared at them intently, not saying anything for almost a minute.

Strong images of power, money and influence danced before her. Money she understood, but the boy across from her didn’t look like anyone of importance.

“So?” He shifted impatiently.

“Silence.” She moved her hands over the crystals but they never lied. One of the formations showed a strong family tie. That must be where the power and influence came in. “You live a blessed life.”

He nodded like that was no revelation.

She continued, asking the crystals to show her specifically where this young man’s power and influence came from. An image of a woman formed in her head. A woman she recognized.

He crossed his arms. “Is that all you’ve got?”

She looked up at him, seeing the resemblance to the woman in her head instantly. His mother. “You come from a powerful family.”

That shut him up. She went on. “One that you both love and hate. You love the power, the influence, the money, but you hate the comparisons, the standards, the expectations, but most especially the consequences if you step out of line.”

A plan unfurled in her head like the leaves of one of her sister’s plants. Lush and verdant, the idea grew so large so quickly that the perceived reward overshadowed any possible risk. She smiled at him, offering him a safe place. A friend. “You struggle with so much. You deserve to be your own man.”

“I do.” He nodded.

“You are so much more than your mother’s son.” She pushed a relaxation spell into her words to make him completely receptive to what she was about to say.

His mouth opened and his pupils dilated slightly. “I am.”

“But no one ever gives you the chance, do they?”

“No.” He shook his head slowly. “They never do.”

She whispered a few words to entrance him further, the alcohol in his system aiding her. “I can help you,” she said quietly. “I can give you that chance. I can make your heart’s desire come true.”

Eyes glassed over, he leaned forward. “How?”

She smiled sweetly. “I’m a good witch. I know a secret garden where all your dreams and desires will come true and your troubles will disappear.”

More nodding.

He belonged to her now. The plan branched into something greater. She pulled a scrap of paper and a pen from her bag and scribbled down an address while murmuring a disillusion spell over it so that he would see what she wanted him to see and not what she’d actually written. Then she held the paper up so he could read it. She spoke the address she wanted him to read three times, then folded the paper and placed it in his hand. “Come to this address tonight and I will help you. You must tell no one and when you return, you must burn this paper to finish the spell. Do you understand?”

He repeated what she’d said, eyes wide as saucers. “I go to this address tonight and you will help me. After that, I burn this paper to complete the spell.”

Not that he would ever get that chance. “Good boy. Now go back to your room and wait until dusk, then come to me. Leave all your valuables behind.”

With a final nod, he got up and disappeared into the crowd.

Her skin tingled with the sheer brilliance of what she’d just set in motion. She thanked the goddess for sending the senator’s son to her as she got to her feet and started packing up her things. She had to get to her sister Zara’s. They had another ritual to prepare for.

* * *

Augustine balled his hand into a fist, but kept it at his side. Smashing it through the bedroom door in front of him wouldn’t do any good.

Although it might make up for the last three days of hell. He’d spent seventy‑two hours knowing the woman he loved was suffering but had been unable to do anything about it. All because three days ago, he’d drugged Harlow in hopes of finding out if the rekindled spirit of her dead twin, Ava Mae, had truly possessed her.

He’d gotten his answer. Harlow was, indeed, possessed.

And now, three days later, Ava Mae had yet to come out of Harlow’s room, claiming to be too sick to join him and Lally for meals. Or do anything else for that matter. Every time he asked, no matter what the reason, she refused.

He stood in the hall and stared at her closed door, his anger building. Had Ava Mae locked herself in there because she remembered that he’d drugged her and gotten her to admit she’d taken over Harlow’s body? Did she know he was wise to her scheme? Was she afraid? He pondered that a moment. If she was, it was the first smart thing she’d done as Ava Mae. And if she was afraid of him, studying up on Harlow so she could appear more like her sister and not her sister’s possessor was another smart move.

Whatever her reasons, he wanted her out where he could see her. Because while Ava Mae was essentially holding Harlow hostage so that Ava Mae could enjoy the pleasures of the corporeal world, that body still belonged to Harlow and he knew for a fact that Harlow was still in there.

He would set Harlow free. From that room. And from her sister. His hands ached from squeezing them so hard. He relaxed them, flexed all twelve of his fingers and took a deep, cleansing breath.

It didn’t work.

What the hell was Ava Mae doing in that room? If he had to guess, she was learning everything she could about Harlow in order to pass as her more competently. At some point, boredom would set in and Ava Mae would have to come out. He lifted his hand, but used it to knock on the door instead of punching a hole in it. For Harlow’s sake, he would continue playing this damned game and ask the same question he’d been asking every morning. He did his best to soften the frustrated edge in his voice. “Morning. How are you feeling today, Harley?”

Coughing answered him. “Morning.” Some sniffling. “I’m just so‑so. Would you have Lally leave my breakfast by the door again?”

As sick as she supposedly was, she hadn’t lost her appetite. “Three days and you’re still not well enough to get out of bed?” He exhaled, pushing his temper down, but anger put words in his mouth. Words that held a threat he should have made a day ago. “I’m getting the doctor over here immediately. You need medical attention before this gets worse. Maybe even a trip to the clinic.”

He heard movement. Feet on the floor.

“That’s not necessary,” she answered. “I’m not that bad. Actually, I think I feel well enough to make it down for breakfast. Let me give it a shot. In fact, a nice hot shower would probably do the trick. I’ll be down soon.”

He grimaced at her lies. “Excellent.” Except now he and Lally had to deal with Ava Mae face‑to‑face. He jogged downstairs to tell Lally the news.

The housekeeper stood at the stove, stirring a pot of grits. “Morning, Augie. Any word from the devil child or she staying holed up in that room forever?”

“Yes, I talked to her and stop calling her that. She’s coming down for breakfast.”

She stopped stirring, eyes wide. “She’s joining us for a meal?”

“Yes. Did you make enough?”

She snorted softly. “Have you never seen me cook before?”

He grinned. “You’re right. I already knew the answer to that one.” He stared out the kitchen windows toward the pool, his smile fading. Steam lifted the aroma from the coffeepot and made his mouth water, but nothing could dislodge the pit in his stomach. He looked at Lally again. “Remember, it might be Ava Mae talking and running the show but Harlow’s still in there. Somewhere.” And he would find a way to get her out. Eventually.

Lally’s brows lifted. “I hope you’re right. Not that I doubt you, child, but this is one of those things we need to be sure about.”

“I’m sure.” He glanced toward the upper levels of the house. “While under the influence of bourbon and nequam, Ava Mae was subdued enough that Harlow could communicate with me. There is no doubt in my mind that the woman I carried into Harlow’s room three nights ago and put to bed is physically Harlow, but mentally Ava Mae.”

Lally returned to stirring the grits, going very quiet as she turned her face toward the window overlooking the backyard. He poured a cup of coffee, added sugar to it and was about to drink when she made a soft whimpering sound and covered her mouth with her hand. She looked at him. Tears streaked her face. “This is my fault. I never should have told that child about the tree.”

Sometimes he wished neither of them knew. The lightning tree hidden in the center of the house thanks to centuries‑old fae magic which had caused all of this, but Lally telling Harlow about it didn’t mean it was Lally’s fault. “You can’t blame yourself. Olivia handled it for years and there was never an issue.” If only Olivia were still alive in this world and not trapped on the fae plane. Which reminded him he needed to visit her. Of course, if she were still alive, Harlow would never have come to New Orleans in the first place.

Lally dabbed at her eyes with the edge of her apron. “There was when I first told Olivia.”

“You mean when Olivia attempted to use the tree to bring Ava Mae’s ashes back to life.” Which was how Ava Mae’s spirit had first been freed. The tree had raised Ava Mae’s spirit from infant to adult but Harlow’s act of dumping the remaining ashes onto the lightning tree had finished the job, creating the monster they now knew as Ava Mae.

Lally nodded. “I shoulda known it would go the same with Harlow. She’s her mother’s child. Why should she act any different?” She sniffed and gave the grits another halfhearted stir before covering them and turning the heat off. “What are we gonna do?”

“I don’t know. Yet. But Fenton’s on it too. Maybe he’ll have some news for me this morning. And I know you don’t like him, but Nekai’s also working on it.” Neither he nor Lally was fond of the weaver fae, but the fact remained that Nekai had once saved Harlow’s life and his skills were valuable. Augustine wasn’t going to turn down help for this situation. “Fenton thought Nekai might know of another weaver fae who’d dealt with something like this before.”

“Good. That’s something.” She checked on a pan of sausage links in the oven. “You leaving soon then?”

“Not until after breakfast.”

“And until we figure something out, how we supposed to act around her? Like we know? Like we don’t?”

“Like we don’t.” He sipped his coffee. “The less we set Ava Mae off, the better.”Lally nodded. “Okay, I can do that.”

He smiled, more for her sake than as a reflection of how he felt. “I know you can. You’re the strongest woman I’ve ever met, Lally Hughes.”

“That’s sweet of you. Speaking of strong women, you going to see Olivia anytime soon?”

“No immediate plan but I do need to visit her.” He smiled. “You want to come?”

“You know I do. I’m gonna make some lemon bars to take.” She hesitated. “So long as bringing me won’t get you into trouble again.”

Taking a human to the fae plane was a serious offense. One Augustine had already committed and one that had almost cost him everything. Now that he was Guardian, however, he was willing to bend that rule on occasion, as long as the visits were kept quiet. “It’ll be fine. Do her good to see you.”

“To see both of us.”

“I’ll make a plan.”

The floorboards creaked and a moment later, Ava Mae meandered into the kitchen in her bathrobe, her beautiful cranberry‑black hair in tousled waves around her shoulders. Harlow would have worn it knotted up in a messy loop. It gave Augustine some pleasure that he knew that much about the twin Ava Mae currently possessed.

She sighed and leaned against the door frame while nibbling on one fingernail. “What are you making a plan for? Something for me?”

Knowing that Harlow was Ava Mae’s prisoner made him want to snap at her. Instead, he smiled and kept up the game. “It can be. I was talking about a visit to your mother on the fae plane. You must be dying to see her again now that you’re feeling better. She’d certainly love to see you. I know you’re still new at traveling by mirror, so I’d be happy to take you with me.”

Her hand came away from her mouth to tangle in her hair. “I’m not sure I’m up for that just yet.”

He hadn’t imagined she would be. “Let me know if you change your mind. It’s nice to see you after three days. I was really starting to get worried, but that shower must have done you a world of good. You don’t look sick at all.” She also didn’t look like she’d showered, judging by her dry hair. “How’d you sleep?”

She shrugged, slanting her eyes at him coyly. “Could’ve been better. My head’s a little foggy, though, and I still feel achy.” She stretched and moaned for emphasis before peeling away from the door and making a beeline to the coffee.

Her lies were one on top of the other, but he had no problem going along with them. To a point. The overt flirting was so out of sync with the way Harlow would act. All it did was remind him that Ava Mae needed dealing with, which put him in a decidedly unromantic mood. “What are your plans today now that you’re feeling better?”

She yawned as she poured a cup of coffee. “Shopping. I need to get out of the house and get some fresh air. Not to mention some new clothes. You wanna come with?” She leaned against him, looking up through her lashes. “We could make a day of it. You could watch me try on some new pretties. I have a lot of underthings to buy.” She scooped up a heaping spoonful of sugar and stared at him as she stirred, her gaze holding the darkly wicked expression he’d come to recognize as purely Ava Mae. “Afterwards, we could grab some lunch. Or whatever.”

He took his cup to the table, leaving her behind. “I can’t, I have work to do. Being Guardian is a full‑time job. And, like I mentioned, I need to visit Olivia.”

She stuck her lip out. “What about the self‑ defense lessons we started?”

“If you’re not up to visiting your mother, I doubt you’re up to sparring with me. Besides, I thought you were going shopping today?” He’d enjoyed the few lessons he’d given Harlow, but that was before Ava Mae had taken over, and he had no desire to give her any more advantage than she already had.

“I am going shopping, but that’s not exactly a high‑stress activity. I guess there’s always tomorrow.” She huffed out a breath. “Unless you’re going to be too busy chasing whatever baddie you’re after now.”

He drank his coffee, which was better than snapping back that she was the baddie he was after. It also helped to temper his response that he believed that Harlow, despite being Ava Mae’s prisoner, was still capable of witnessing everything that was going on around her. He held his eye contact with Ava Mae, daring her to look away and praying that Harlow really could hear him. “I can’t make plans for tomorrow until I see how today goes. It’s my job to keep the city and all its citizens safe. And I’m not going to start shirking that duty just because Branzino is no longer a threat. There are still plenty of evils that need eradicating.”

Whether it was the mention of her father or evils that needed eradicating, the tiniest hint of alarm flashed in Ava Mae’s gaze. She spun toward Lally, who was watching with the sharp‑eyed expression of someone who thought they might have to act on a moment’s notice. “How long before breakfast?”

“Ten minutes or so.” Lally turned and started cracking eggs with an unusual amount of force.

Ava Mae nodded. “Fine. I’ll come back down then. I just remembered something I need to do.” With a furtive look at Lally, she took her coffee and went upstairs.

* * *

Ava Mae set her coffee cup on Olivia’s dressing table and pushed open the door to her mother’s closet. The soft breeze wafting through the cracks of the door hidden behind the clothes greeted Ava Mae like an old friend. The tree sensed her just as she sensed it.

Deep within her, Harlow shifted uncomfortably. What are you doing?

What I should have done days ago. She walked in, closed the door and leaned against it. Whether or not Augustine had meant his words to scare her, they had. Did he know she’d taken over Harlow’s body? She wasn’t sure he even knew about the tree, but all his talk about eradicating evil made her think he was up to something. Something that involved her.

Leaving the house and being away from the tree for a short time wasn’t an issue, but if he did something that prevented her from getting back here, she would be in real trouble. She’d weaken, and with the way Harlow had been fighting back, Ava Mae could lose her control. If she was away long enough, she might weaken to the point of no return.

That could not be allowed to happen. She needed some insurance. The kind only the tree could give her. She shoved the clothes aside to stare at the outline of the hidden door. Not so hidden now, not since she’d wooed Harlow into unlocking it and stepping through.

She pushed it open and walked out onto the small balcony that abutted the tree’s trunk. She closed her eyes for a moment, inhaling the acrid, sooty scent that smelled like home because it was. The tree was the only home she’d known. She went to the edge of the narrow balcony and wrapped her arms around the trunk, pressing her face into the charred bark.

Harlow cringed, causing Ava Mae’s stomach to sour, but the tree vibrated with welcoming power and after a moment of contact, she felt whole again and Harlow fell silent and still.

She released the tree and stepped back, staring up at the spiderweb of branches that mapped the space above her. Confidence filled her. No one would unseat her from this body. No one. She wasn’t sure how she was going to make that happen, but she’d figure it out just like she’d figured everything else out.

The closest branch was above her head. She climbed onto the railing, using the trunk for balance, and took hold of one narrow offshoot. It snapped cleanly in her grasp. She hopped down off the railing and stuck the twig in the pocket of her robe. She’d carry it in her purse when she left the house today; that way, even if Augustine prevented her from returning, she’d have a piece of the tree with her to give her strength and keep Harlow from wresting control back. At least for a little while.

I hate you, Harlow whispered. She sounded very far away.

Don’t worry, Sister dear. Ava Mae smiled as she left the closet. You’re only going to be with me a short while longer.

* * *

Neither Augustine nor Lally said a word until Ava Mae had gone back upstairs. Lally shook her head, her voice low but strong. “That woman makes me want to strangle her.” She set the table. “Poor Harlow, trapped in there, unable to do anything.”

“I know. It’s hard not to do something physical, but I can’t see how that would help Harlow. I will find a way to free her. I promise.”

Lally nodded. “Well, if you’re not going to be here today, I’m glad that woman isn’t going to be, either.”

“Lally, if she does anything to upset you—”

“Don’t you worry about me.” She patted his arm before returning to the stove. “She can’t hurt me anyway. Not much.”

For her sake, he smiled. “Good. But if you need a place to go, you can always go to the Guardian house. I’ll make sure Beatrice and Dulcinea know, too. In fact, I’ll ask them if they mind you having a key. Not that Beatrice goes out too much now that she’s got morning sickness.” His two lieutenants who lived there would be lucky to have Lally around. The woman was a treasure. “And I can have Nekai add you to the house’s protection ward. It’s a little hard to find otherwise.”

“Thank you, Augie. I appreciate that, but you know I don’t do well leaving this house.” She dumped the eggs she’d scrambled into a pan slick with bacon fat. “You be home for supper?”

“I should be.” Despite Lally’s reassurances that she could take care of herself, he was loath to leave her alone with Ava Mae, no matter how briefly. “If not, I’ll call, okay? And if I can get home early, we’ll go see Olivia.”

“Good enough.”

Ava Mae’s return for breakfast dampened his mood again and after a tense meal spent dancing around Ava Mae’s innuendos and deflecting Lally’s pointed comments, Augustine busied himself with made‑up chores until Ava Mae left. She took off in Olivia’s Bentley convertible, ignoring the late‑model hybrid Harlow had driven to New Orleans. He couldn’t blame her. Harlow’s vehicle had definitely seen better days and the deep red Bentley was a peach of a car. Didn’t matter what Ava Mae drove, though; he’d still know where she was. He’d stuck a GPS tracker on both cars and dropped one in her handbag. He wasn’t about to let her disappear with Harlow’s body.

Fully kitted up in sword, knives and a new pair of fae leathers Fenton had ordered for him, Augustine gave Lally a nod. “All right, I’m off. You need me, you call.” He kissed her cheek.

“I will. You be careful now.” She smiled as she smoothed the collar of his long coat. “You look awful handsome in this getup. Wouldn’t want any strange women getting ideas and following you home.”

“Yeah, we have enough strange women in this house already.”

She laughed as he left and in a few moments, he was in his car, the sleek Tesla Thrun he’d inherited with the job of Guardian. Driving such a fine piece of machinery usually righted his mood, but nothing could shake his worry for Harlow. He was so lost in thought he drove past the turn for Lafayette Cemetery Number One.

He swung around, parked on Coliseum and got out, going into his newly discovered smokesinger half form that allowed him to ghost through the high wall surrounding the hallowed site. He’d only used the form a few times now, but with each shift it got easier and his confidence in the ability grew, something he knew Fenton would appreciate.

Inside the cemetery, he strolled toward the Miller crypt with the collar of his long leather coat turned up against the chill of the February morning. Fallen leaves crunched underfoot, releasing the damp scent of earth. After a quick check that no one else was around, he took the few steps to the crypt’s entrance and pulled on the rusted sconce beside it. Soundlessly, the door swung open.

He slipped in and used another sconce to close the door. Simultaneously, a section of the crypt’s floor slid back, revealing a set of worn steps leading into the earth. Into the Pelcrum. The headquarters for all the secret and not‑so‑secret dealings of the fae. He strode down into the cavern, the soft glow of the gas lamps along the wide hall welcoming him as he made his way past a number of doors to open the double set at the end.

Fenton waited at the grand meeting table in the war room, as did a large mug of coffee at Augustine’s place. “Morning. How are things?”

Augustine knew exactly what Fenton meant. He settled into his chair and took a drink of coffee before answering. “She finally left her room and came down to breakfast.”

Fenton’s brows lifted. “That’s . . . good. I guess. Any change other than that?”

Augustine shook his head. “No. Ava Mae is still running the show. She said she’s going out shopping today.”

“Maybe you should have one of the lieutenants trail her.”

“I planned to. I put a tracker on the car. Actually, let me call Cylo before we go any further.” As an ethos fae, Cy could mimic anyone so long as he’d seen them. So even though Ava Mae knew what he looked like, he could choose a new identity and keep himself perfectly hidden. In fact, he could change his look throughout the day, never giving her the slightest hint she was being watched. Augustine grabbed his Life Management Device, unlocked the screen and tapped Cy’s speed dial.

Fenton frowned. “Is your com cell not working?”

Augustine touched the tiny gray dot stuck behind his ear. “It’s fine. Just a little early for voices in my head.” Using the LMD manually turned the com cell off automatically.

Cy answered. “Hey boss, what’s up? How’s our girl?”

“She’s the same.” Cy and Harlow had bonded over their shared geek love of online gaming and a sci‑fi show called Star Alliance. “She’s also why I’m calling you. Ava Mae plans to go out shopping today. I want you to tail her, make sure she doesn’t do anything to harm Harlow.”

“You got it. She’ll never know I’m there.”

“That’s the plan. Check in with me when you can; otherwise, just call me when she returns home.”

“You got it, boss. How do I find her?”

“She’s in Olivia’s red Bentley. The car has a tracker on it but so does her purse. As soon as we hang up, I’ll send you the links for both. You shouldn’t have any trouble locating her.”

“Cool. I’m on it.”

Augustine hung up, swiping his finger over the screen and sending the links as promised. Then he set his LMD down and picked up his coffee. “That’s one less thing to worry about today. What else is new? Any ideas on how to get Harlow back? Nekai turn anything up?”

Fenton’s slow nod was a sure sign there was something new. “I’ll get to what’s new in a moment. The best Nekai’s been able to come up with so far is a spell that would put her in a type of stasis.”

“You mean like a coma?” Augustine didn’t like the sound of that at all.

Fenton made a face, tipping his hand back and forth. “Sort of. Because it would be magically induced and not medically, it wouldn’t be as taxing on the body. More like a very restful sleep. But it’s a stopgap measure, not a cure.” He pushed his glasses back on the bridge of his nose. “At least we know it’s possible if Ava Mae gets out of control.”

“I guess. What’s the other news?”

“In my research on Harlow’s condition, it occurred to me that we fae may not be the most expert source of information on this type of possession.” He slanted his eyes at Augustine. “I was thinking you might talk to your mother, see if she knows of anyone who might be knowledgeable about exorcisms. If we get to that point.

”Augustine’s jaw tensed. “The last time I tried to talk to my mother, she refused to even see me. I am done trying to reach her.”

“But Harlow’s life is potentially at stake. I just thought—”

“There is nothing I wouldn’t do for Harlow.” Augustine hesitated. “Do you really think this is a path worth pursuing?”

Fenton shrugged. “It might be grasping at straws but right now, straws are all we have.”

Augustine grimaced. “Maybe there’s someone else we can talk to then. My mother isn’t going to help us. That bridge isn’t just burned, it’s gone. Besides, if there is any way around it, I will not put Harlow through an exorcism.”

He stared at the enormous fleur‑de‑lis inlaid in the table’s center, memories churning through his mind. His mother had done that to him as a child. He’d been terrified by the process, somewhat because of the mysticism surrounding it but more by the idea that he was possessed by something evil. All because he’d been born blatantly fae, unlike his half‑human, half‑smokesinger mother, who could easily pass for human. Not long after kicking him out of her home for being too fae, she’d gone to live at the Ursuline Convent. She still lived there, doing menial labor in exchange for her room and board.

Her faith had become her Guardian, but her son, who was Guardian of the entire city, she ignored. The irony was not lost on him.

“I’m sorry,” Fenton said quietly. “I knew you’d . . . that is, I didn’t mean to stir up your past.”

The fact that Fenton knew what Augustine’s mother had done to him those many years ago didn’t surprise him. The cypher fae knew everything. “I know you didn’t. Anything else?”

“Yes. I had a feeling you’d respond to my suggestion about contacting your mother the way you did, so I reached out to Detective Grantham—”

“What’s he got to do with Harlow’s situation?”

“Nothing directly, but he did tell us his grandmother was a mambo.”

“I remember. She was the one who verified the powder we found in Dreich’s home after his death was bokura, the zombie dust.” The light clicked on in Augustine’s mind. A mambo was a voodoo priestess and voodoo had many religious elements in it. “You’re thinking a mambo could very well know how to handle a possession.”

“I am.”

Typically the fae avoided voodoo the same way they did witchcraft, but this was a special case. And perhaps, in some ways, a new age. What difference did it make where the help came from? “Is his grandmother well? I thought she’d been sick.”

“She had been, but she’s better now.”

“Did you ask Grantham about her helping us?”

Fenton nodded. “I did. He talked to her and she agreed to meet with you, so long as Grantham is there, too. I’m sure she’s as trepidatious about meeting you as you are about mixing voodoo into this situation.”

“If it helps Harlow, I’m all for it.”“Good. You’re to meet him at her house in a couple hours. She lives out in Treme.”

“Near Father Ogun?”

“In that neighborhood, yes.” Fenton tapped his LMD. “I’m sending you the directions now.”

Augustine’s LMD buzzed with the incoming info. “Thank you for setting that up.”

“You’re welcome, but it’s not exactly free. Grantham needs our help with something, too, so you can expect to talk to him afterwards.”

“Quid pro quo. What’s he need?”

“Tourists have been disappearing.”

“Sounds like a job for City Hall. Or the tourism board.”Fenton shook his head. “I don’t mean tourism’s down, I mean tourists have literally gone missing.”

“Mardi Gras was two days ago. They’re probably just sleeping it off somewhere.”

Fenton shook his head. “Six tourists in three days. Valuables left in their hotel rooms, except for the things they might have been carrying on their person. This isn’t just a case of someone passing out by the river, or in the wrong hotel room. And to make matters worse, it seems one of the tourists is Robbie Pellimento.”

“The senator’s son? You said seems. Does that mean you don’t know if he’s actually missing?”

“Correct. Robbie has a reputation as being quite the party animal. It could be he is actually sleeping it off somewhere. Or still partying. Or trying to avoid his mother, the senator. Whatever the case, Senator Pellimento was scheduled to arrive in two days to dedicate that new statue in Audubon Park.” Fenton heaved out an unhappy breath. “However, since Robbie has been incommunicado, she’s arriving today.”

“And that’s a concern because?”

“While it’s pretty common knowledge that Irene Pellimento is on track to be the next president of the Southern Union, what’s not well known is her hatred of othernaturals. If she had her way, we’d all be rounded up into camps. And we might be, if she ends up president.”

Augustine frowned. “I’m not saying I doubt you, but this is the first time I’ve heard about this. Not that I follow human politics much.”

“I do and I can tell you, Pellimento’s sly about it, but digging into the legislation she’s passed has brought to light a frightening number of anti‑ othernatural rulings.”

“So basically, if her son is among these missing tourists and this turns out to be othernatural related, she’s going to hate us more than usual?”

Fenton’s eyes narrowed behind his glasses. “She has the power to take New Orleans away from us, Augustine. To destroy our Haven city designation.”

“That’s a fae thing. She has no say over that.”

“She does if she makes it illegal for fae to own property or hold a job here.” He pointed a finger at Augustine’s smirk. “I’m not joking. If her son dies and she becomes the next president of the Southern Union, she will make our lives very difficult. Actually, it won’t take her becoming the president to make our lives hell. As I’m sure you can imagine, Loudreux is very concerned this not happen.”

“For once, the Prime and I agree on something.” Hugo Loudreux was the leader of the fae Elektos but even his position as Prime didn’t give him authority over the Guardian. In theory, they were supposed to work together, but Loudreux hadn’t been in favor of Augustine becoming the Guardian and as such, made his life as difficult as he could whenever possible.

“I hope that means you’ll give this some real attention.”

Augustine sat back, his fingers on the handle of his coffee mug. It took a lot to rile Fenton. This was obviously serious. “I will. We’ll find her son.” Eventually. He still had Harlow’s needs at heart. “Grantham have any leads?”

“Not on Robbie, no, but he does have an eyewitness who thinks she saw one of the missing tourists talking to Zara Vincent at the farmer’s market.”

“If you’d told me Giselle, I’d think it meant something, but Zara’s the harmless one, isn’t she?”

Seeming slightly calmer, Fenton shrugged. “She’s never done anything to put a blip on the radar.”

“Although now that her sister is the high priestess of the New Orleans Coven, maybe she’s decided the time is ripe to make a move.” His brain kept processing. “Or she could be working with Giselle.”

Fenton lifted his hand. “To what end? Giselle makes her money telling fortunes in Jackson Square. I know she’s got private clients that pay her a lot more, but those tourists are her bread and butter. I can’t imagine her doing something that could possibly scare them away.”

Augustine shook his head. “But as high priestess, she’s now on the coven’s payroll. I’m sure she’ll keep her private clients but I can’t see her wallowing with the unwashed masses in Jackson Square anymore.”

Fenton lifted one finger. “Ah, but she has been. We’ve had eyes on her.”

“Interesting.” Augustine wrapped his hand around his mug but the coffee had gone cold. He let it go. “Almost as much as the fact that theirs is the one name that’s been connected to this new issue.” He sighed. “Talking to Giselle never does any good. I can’t imagine talking to Zara would be any different.”

“Agreed. Leave that to Grantham. Right now we have Harlow to think about.”

“And finding Robbie.” But finding that party boy was only peripherally on his radar. No matter how bunched up Prime Loudreux was. Harlow was his sole concern. Augustine pushed his chair back and stood. “If anything comes of the talk with Grantham’s grandmother, I’ll let you know. Otherwise, I’ll see you tomorrow morning. And I’ll tell Grantham he’s got our cooperation, but my involvement is going to be minimal until Harlow is herself again.” The thought of another day passing and Harlow still held prisoner in her own body shot a sense of helplessness through him, a feeling he hated more than anything.

Fenton nodded. “I understand.”

Augustine turned and strode out of the war room and down the hall toward the crypt’s exit. Paying a visit to his mother, even under the guise of helping Harlow, would be worthless. Unless he commanded her to help.

As Guardian, he had the right to require any fae citizen of New Orleans to assist him. But as her son, he also knew that such a command would destroy her. She would be forced to face her fae heritage, the only thing she hated more than her own son.

He shut the crypt door behind him, blinking for a moment in the brightness of the clouded sky.

There was no question in his mind as to his decision if things got that desperate.

Harlow would always come first.

About the Author

Kristen Painter’s writing resume boasts multiple Golden Heart nominations and advance praise from a handful of bestselling authors, including Gena Showalter and Roxanne St. Claire. A former New Yorker now living in Florida, Kristen has a wealth of fascinating experiences from which to flavor her stories, including time spent working in fashion for Christian Dior and as a maitre’d for Wolfgang Puck.