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Crescent Moon (Chapter 3)

As I stared at the place where the man had been, a long, low howl rose into the night. Hie hair on my arms lifted. I could swear the noise came from right in front of me.

I'm a zoologist I know howls are funny that way. Not only is it virtually impossible for a human to gauge their direction or distance, but often a few wolves can sound like a whole lot more.

Of course one sounds like one, and that was one more man there were supposed to be around here.

"No wolves in the swamp, my ass," I muttered.

Nevertheless, I headed for my car at the fastest clip I could manage and not trip over my feet I didn't plan on proving myself right by meeting a lone wolf – or whatever that was. Being right wouldn't keep me from being dead.

Since wolves are nocturnal, my best bet would be to return with the sun, a guide, a gun.

Maybe a gun wouldn't even help. Or at least not one that wasn't loaded with silver bullets.

The thought startled a laugh out of me. Since the sound was slightly hysterical, I started the car and headed to town, not slowing down until I planted my butt on a bar stool in a place called Kelly's. There was always a Kelly's.

Several blocks over, the music, the voices, of Bourbon Street increased as the night progressed. I waited until the tourists cleared out and the locals drifted in; then I started to ask questions.

"Ruelle ain't a guide, ye nuts?"

I frowned at an ancient man, so brown and wrinkled he must have bathed in sunlight for the past forty years. Why had Frank sent me to Ruelle if he was – ?

I tilted my head. "What is he?"

"Crazy."

"I'm sorry?"

My companion stared into the bottom of his empty beer mug with an expression of such pathetic loneliness that I waved a finger, and the bartender filled it.

"He owns a mansion at the edge of the swamp, but the thing's all fallin' down. He lives in the wild."

"Then he is familiar with the area."

"Better'n anyone. But he ain't been seen for years. He's probably dead."

Strange. Maybe Frank had known Adam before he'd lost his mind.

"Why would Ruelle abandon the family home?"

"He went into the army right out of high school. Word is he joined some hotshot Special Forces group. When he came home he couldn't live in the world anymore, so he went into the swamp."

I found myself wondering why a young man with any other opportunity would enlist. Of course I'd turned my back on opportunity, too, preferring to sleep hi a tent with the man of my dreams rather than make oodles of money working for Daddy.

However, I doubted Adam Ruelle had become a soldier because of a woman. Then again, maybe he had.

As I considered what Ruelle had to do with anything, I picked up a book of matches on the bar emblazoned with a spooky font that spelled out Cassandra's.

The old man leaned over and tapped the word with a nicotine-stained finger. "You wanna learn about voodoo and such?"

I frowned. "Why?"

"Priestess Cassandra bought Marie Laveau's old house on Royal Street."

"Marie Laveau the voodoo queen?"

"Yes, ma'am." He nodded, warming to his subject 'Most think Marie was actually two women – a mother and a daughter. When one died, the other took her place, which explains why folks believed Marie had power."

"Growing younger and not dying will do that," I agreed.

"No one knows where Marie lived for certain," the bartender interjected, "or where she's buried, neither."

"She's buried in St Louis Cemetery Number One," the old man insisted. "Second most visited grave site in the country."

"What's the first?" I'd bet on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or maybe the Eternal Flame.

"Graceland."

Well, no one's ever claimed that Americans aren't bizarre.

"Priestess Cassandra lives at Marie's place," my companion insisted. "Set up a voodoo shop."

"Sounds kitschy."

"Catchy?"

"Touristy. Tacky."

"Not this one. She's got things you won't find just anywhere. Even has a voodoo temple out back."

That I wouldn't mind seeing, but first things first.

"I hear there's been disappearances."

"In New Awlins?" He lifted a brow. "Don't say?"

His sarcasm was understandable. I'd discovered early on in my search for the paranormal that a lot more people disappeared than anyone realized. With the huge transient population in New Orleans – both homeless and tourists –  as well as a river, a lake, and a swamp nearby, I bet they didn't even have an accurate count of the missing.

I motioned for a refill and tried a different approach. "Been talk of a wolf in the swamp, too."

"I saw a wolf on Jackson Square."

I blinked. "In town?"

The old guy nodded

"You're sure?"

Wolves definitely didn't venture into highly populated areas – unless they were completely whacked.

"If ye don't believe me, ask Jay." He flicked a finger toward a young man who was quietly consuming a huge hamburger at the other end of the bar. "He works the Square."

"Works?" I eyed Jay. He was cute enough, but I couldn't see him trolling the streets.

"Po-lice."

Well, that made more sense.

I resisted the urge to rub my hands together in glee. An off-duty police officer. What could be more convenient?

If a werewolf walked right into Kelly's, but I wasn't going to wait around for that to happen.

"Was there a wolf in Jackson Square?" I asked.

Officer Jay looked up from his plate. "No."

I turned to the old man.

"I saw it," he mumbled.

"Folks see strange things around here every night," Officer Jay explained.

"Like what?"

Standing, he tossed some money onto the counter. "New Orleans is the most haunted city in America, and there's a reason for it"

"Ghosts?"

"Booze, drugs, loud music." He headed for the door. "Messes with the head."

A few moments later I said my good-byes, then meandered down a quiet, dark side road in the direction of Bourbon Street. Within minutes I had the distinct impression I wasn't alone.

Perhaps one of the ghosts had decided to follow me home. Or maybe it was just a mugger. I'd almost welcome the opportunity to kick some low-life ass after allowing myself to be embarrassingly manhandled by –

Who?

I paused and could have sworn whatever lurked behind me paused, too. How's that for paranoid?

I glanced to the left, the right, the rear, and saw nothing but shadows. So I walked faster, and as I did, I distinguished a clackety-clack, like nails tapping on a desk. Or claws clicking along the pavement.

Now I was really losing my mind.

Heated breath brushed my thighs, a growl rumbled the air, and my heart stuttered. I was afraid to turn, afraid of what I would see, or not see.

Up ahead, someone had left open the gate to a private courtyard. I pretended to head past, then ducked in.

Something scooted by, something low to the ground and furry. I was so amazed, I scrambled forward to get a better look and caught my toe in a crack.

My knees hit the pavement, men my hands. I waited, expecting hot breath to brush my face instead of my thighs.

Nothing happened.

I climbed to my feet, using the wall for support, and stepped onto the street. A car whooshed past Laughter drifted on the wind. A dog barked, but the sidewalk was deserted.

Except for the man who lounged against the building a block away. Beyond him lights flashed, music pulsed, people danced in the street. His bicep flexed as he leaned forward to light the tip of the cigarette just visible beyond the long, dark fall of his hair.

I started to run as he slid around the corner. By the time I reached Bourbon Street, all that remained was the milling crowd.

That night I dreamed someone climbed onto my balcony. I'd left the French doors open. I'd known he would come.

He moved to the bed with the grace of an animal. His eyes were so blue, they made me gasp, even before he reached out a rough, calloused hand and touched me.

In the dream I saw him, and he was beautiful. Full lips, sharp cheekbones, long eyelashes – an aristocrat's face and a workingman's body. No man of leisure would ever possess scarred ringers, bulging muscles, or tanned skin.

Naked he stood above me, the faint silver light shining across the ladder of his ribs, a taut, rippling abdomen. The desire to trace my fingers along the flow, feel the heat and the strength, press my mouth to those ridges, then move lower and taste him, nearly overwhelmed me.

"Goddess of de hunt, moon, and night," he murmured, his voice spilling down my skin like a waterfall.

I wanted to lose myself in that voice, in him.

The bed dipped. He did things I'd only imagined, whispered suggestions in a language I didn't understand. I cried out, "Loup-garou," and the breathy, hoarse rasp awoke me.

A breeze fluttered the curtains. No wonder I'd had a nightmare. Heat poured in, along with the rumble of the party that still rocked the street below.

I got out of bed, slammed the French doors, flicked the lock, still trembling with the memory of a dream that hadn't seemed like a dream.

I couldn't blame myself for an erotic fantasy. I was a young, healthy woman who'd denied herself sex for four years. Suddenly confronted with a mysterious man, unlike any I'd ever known, I'd have been worried if I didn't dream of him.

Nevertheless, I was annoyed with myself – frustrated, sweaty. Too wide awake for this time of the night, I didn't relish what was to come.

Hours in the dark, lonely and guilty, because even though Simon was dead, within my dreams he'd been alive. Until tonight, when another man had taken his place.

I spun away from the window, and suddenly I couldn't breathe.

At the foot of my bed, stark against the creamy satin bedspread, lay the bright red flower I'd seen on the far shore of the swamp that afternoon.

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