Blog Tour: The House of Crimson & Clover by Sarah M. Cradit

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The House of Crimson & Clover Box Set Volumes I-IV bySarah M. Cradit The House of Crimson & Clover #1-5 Publication Date: August 17, 2015 Genres:Fantasy, Paranormal, Romance, Urban Fantasy
Tour: The House of Crimson & Clover Box Set Volumes I-IV by Sarah M. Cradit
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The Sullivans, a family of hard-working Irish lawyers, came from nothing and built a life they can be proud of. The Deschanels amassed incredible wealth by siding with the North during the Civil War, betraying their people. Both New Orleans families have a dark and rich history, painted with secrets, treachery, and colorful, supernatural abilities.
The House of Crimson and Clover unravels the mysteries surrounding both families, pulling us further into their tangled, enigmatic lives.
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About Sarah M. Cradit

Sarah M. Cradit
Sarah is the USA Today Bestselling Author of the Paranormal Southern Fiction series, The House of Crimson & Clover. The series was born of her combined loves of New Orleans, family dramas, and the mysterious nature of love and desire. Her books combine elements of paranormal, mystery, suspense, intrigue, and romance. She is always working on the next book in the series, and absolutely loves connecting with her fans. Sarah lives in the Pacific Northwest, but has traveled the world from Asia to Europe to Africa. When she isn’t working (either at her day career, or hard at work at writing), she is reading a book and discovering new authors. The great loves of her life (in order) are: her husband James, her writing, and traveling the world.

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4- Jacob

Q

Jacob sat on his lopsided balcony, overlooking the river. Ahead, the Steamboat Natchez slowly eased back into port for the evening. Beneath, the loud sounds of proletarian commerce, police sirens, and crimes not-yet-committed filled the air.
He could have afforded better, but there was a peacefulness about returning to the raucous and lively Irish Channel. His years there were not the happiest, by any stretch, but they remained the backdrop for a period of greater control than he currently possessed.
At the tender age of ten years old, Jacob was handed off to Sister Agnes at Saint Louise Parochial Academy, after his last living relative in Ireland decided he was too much of a burden. Not only pulled from the safety of his mother’s arms, but from the country of his upbringing. Our orphanages are overflowing with wee brats n’one wants. Ye’ll get better care fro’ th’ one Father O’Connor recommends in the states, were the closest to tender words Jacob would ever get from his aunt.
For most coming through the doors of Saint Louise, it was an expensive Catholic school, but for the few, unfortunate children without family, like Jacob, it was also an orphanage, with none of the accouterments of the school itself.
“Ye poor, sweet dear,” Sister Agnes had lamented, eyeing his torn clothes and lack of luggage. “Keep yer nose down and focus on yer studies and you’ll be fine, lad.” But he didn’t miss how she looked away as the words floated off her lips. Not the first unfortunate orphan who’d passed through, apparently. It didn’t take much to guess how their tenure had ended.
He quickly discovered the difference between the orphans and students at St. Louise was bigger than where each rested their heads at night. The academy was largely funded by some of the wealthier Uptown families (including the Deschanels, though Jacob wouldn’t learn that until much later), some of whose children were students. Allowing housing for orphans made it possible for those same benefactors to increase their charitable tax deductions.
The sisters were understandably terrified of angering their source of support, and so what passed for structure and discipline at St. Louise was nothing more than gentle scolding… unless you were one of the orphans, in which case martyrdom was not far off.
Nearing adolescence when he arrived, it was painfully evident from the beginning that Jacob’s chances of finding a family were slim. And it didn’t take long for the other children to figure out why Jacob had been shipped all the way from Ireland, alone and with nothing to his name.
Jacob came to know his bullies by their features, rather than their names, a trick his father taught him. Don’ see yer aggressor as a person, Jacob. It softens yer heart, and exposes yer weaknesses. Reduce them to naught more tha’ a word that makes them nothin’.
The worst of the bullies was an overweight redhead, with freckles so dense they seemed as if they might eventually swallow up his eyes. Jacob thought of him as Speck.
About a month after Jacob showed up, Speck tore the Saint Jude medal from Jacob’s neck; a gift from his mother. “Your dad musta prayed to Jude about what a lost cause his family was, and he replied ‘Yep, kill ‘em and start over!’“ Speck’s group of buddies rallied around him, ready to nod and give agreement. “Way I see it, you’re already dead, you dirty mick. Killing you would be doing God a favor.”
“I don’ know wha’ God ye pray to, but mine doe’nt require favors,” Jacob replied, already squaring his stance, as Pa showed him. Ready.
“Take the cock out of your mouth and try that again,” Speck cracked, and his friends roared. It wouldn’t be the last time they ridiculed his rural Irish brogue, but Jacob would be sure they remembered the first.
“I suggested th’ same thing to yer ma last night, but she was enjoyin’ herself too much to heed th’ advice,” Jacob quipped back.
Speck threw the first punch.
Jacob’s father had been an amateur pugilist back in Ireland, supplementing his unreliable income with fights several nights a week, accepting a portion of the wager proceeds. And while he granted little time for his children, he spent what he did have teaching Jacob and his brother, Enoch, how to fight.
Yer stance is everything. Only let him hit ye for misdirection. Next most important is knowin’ yer opponent. Yah fightin’ a big boy? Wear him out. Then strike when he’s winded.
Over time, Jacob would fill out, but as a child he was small and wiry; an easy target. But no target was easy while moving, and so Jacob danced and dodged until Speck coughed and wheezed, all the while taunting his apparent lack of courage. And then Jacob waylaid the bigger boy with blows that would have made Liam Donnelly proud.
It took several of Speck’s friends, and Sister Agnes, to stop him, and Jacob was still swinging when they hauled him away. No one was surprised when Speck was given comfort, and Jacob solitary detention.
Sister Agnes came to see him in punishment, to tend to his split lip. “Jacob, don’t ye know you’re the best o’ the lot? This is no way to go through life.”
Jacob had looked up, grinning through a mouthful of blood. “But I won, Sister.”
She shook her head with a heavy sadness. “Tis not a victory if it comes at the cost of yer soul.”
“Then there’s no use in talkin’ about it, Sister, ‘coz my Pa a’ready took my soul when he dragged my family wit’ ‘im to hell.”
The match with Speck marked the beginning of Jacob Donnelly fighting his way through his studies. Over time, only the bravest, and boldest, dared take him on.
But as he grew older in Saint Louise’s, and he received fewer challenges, Jacob slowly came to the awareness he was not fighting for self-defense. He fought to reclaim something critical he’d lost. His soul, perhaps. And the longer he went without a fight, the worse his studies fared. His knuckles ached, and his shoulders itched.
When he reached the age of fourteen—the cutoff for Saint Louise—he was sent to a sister private school in Uptown, where fighting meant immediate expulsion. But the loss of Sister Agnes, and her constant steadying, hurt almost as much as losing his physical outlet.
Sister Agnes, as it turned out, was from an Irish village not far from where the Donnellys met their gruesome end. For this reason, and many others, she had a soft spot for Jacob the moment he walked through the venerable doors of Saint Louise. Her Pa was also a fighter, and she recognized the hunger, and need, in Jacob’s eyes all too well. She seemed to understand telling him to stop would be like asking him not to breathe. And so, she introduced him to a young Russian who ran a fight club on the river.
Vasily was not much older than Jacob, but his face bore the tale of a full life already lived. He immediately witnessed the fire in Jacob, but cautioned him he would find fighting with Russians a completely different experience. While naturally lean like Jacob, they spent their days and nights in the gym, building muscle mass and pushing themselves far beyond their natural limit. For Jacob, fighting was a release; for them, a way of life.
They called themselves the Kremlin; an ironic jab at the government they’d eagerly left behind.
In the beginning, Jacob lost nearly all his bouts. The Russians laughed, wheedling him to go back to his school and fight little kids. This didn’t deter him in the slightest. He walked away with broken ribs, cracked jaws, and eventually got used to seeing through one eye at a time. Sheer Irish stubbornness meant he worked harder, and started training with Vasily, who, impressed by Jacob’s determination, took him personally under his wing. He learned to be an effective southpaw outside fighter, discovering a way to blend technique and instinct. He “had a chin,” as Vasily would say; a fighter who could take the big hit and find the inner resolve to remain standing. And eventually, he started winning.
He became known as “Fightin’ Irish” amongst the Kremlin, and when they opened up private matches with other fight clubs around the greater New Orleans area, they always pitted him against the biggest opponents. A pugilist remake of David and Goliath, Jacob could dance around them for untold time, wearing them down, before going in for the victory. Though he hit his growth spurt as a sophomore in high school—shooting up to over six feet—it did not dull his quickness, or gift at reading opponents.
For the first time since his father murdered his family, he was alive with purpose.
But Jacob never mistook the satisfaction he drew from fighting with happiness. He’d long ago given up hope of ever finding that. Fighting was surviving.
When he was fifteen, Sister Agnes formally adopted him, leaving her post at Saint Louise to tend to his care. And each night, when he came home, she would be awake, ready to tend his wounds, and then help him with his homework.
It was Sister Agnes who followed the Deschanel tragedies, and piqued Jacob’s interest in the subject. Thanks to scholarships, and a modest trust fund established upon her retirement, she paid for his higher education at Tulane, seeing him securely ensconced on campus before returning to her own family in Ireland. And so Jacob had her to thank for not only helping him first find his control, but then paving the way for him to meet the one person who could make him forget about boxing altogether. The scars on his hands healed, just as the one on his chest, where his father’s bullet had pierced. His heart burst with the recognition of what it meant to finally discover a means of being whole.
But Amelia was gone now, and with every day that passed, it grew increasingly doubtful she was ever coming back.
And once again, Jacob felt the ache in his knuckles, and the itch in his shoulders.


Though Jacob had been out of the fight scene for nearly a decade, he’d kept in touch with Vasily, who’d since retired from the ring, but still checked in on the old crew from time to time.
There’s a new club in Algiers, Vasily said. New crew. New rules. But they’ll take a man they don’t know, if you catch my meaning. If you’re having a rough patch, they won’t ask questions.
Jacob stopped outside the doors of the unmarked bar with hesitation. Once he stepped through, he might never be able to turn back. Embracing this old release was his equivalent of accepting all hope was lost.
“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here!” a familiar voice externalized his feelings. Jacob whipped his head up to see a man tottering for balance, clutching a piece of paper he flapped belligerently in greeting. Over the exhaust, Jacob smelled the rancid liquor on his breath, wafting up on the artificial breeze from passing traffic.
“Tristan… what are you doing here?”
“Signing up to get my ass kicked, I hope?” Tristan grinned, stumbling against the building. Under the awning lights, Jacob was granted a clear view of the younger man’s face, which boasted a split lip and developing black eye. “Oh, the other guy looks worse, trust me. Who do you think gave me the address?”
“You shouldn’t be here,” Jacob muttered, casting a searching glance at the old building, before reluctantly turning back to Amelia’s cousin. He sighed, understanding Tristan was reading his thoughts. He’d been too distracted to stop him. “This place is bad news, Tris.”
Tristan scoffed, kicking at a piece of upturned sidewalk. “You’re here. Can’t be that bad if the Prodigal Son of Ireland is a patron.”
“I’m not a patron, and there’s a lot you don’t know about me,” Jacob countered, slipping a hand over Tristan’s shoulders. The latter stumbled into the embrace as he tried to move away, but then erupted with laughter as he nearly knocked them both over.
“I know you’re a pathetic son-of-a-bitch for letting Amelia walk away like that,” Tristan replied. His words were so slurred that “son-of-a-bitch” came out more like “splunchsbish,” but Jacob got the gist. “But I can’t talk, I guess. I let my pregnant girlfriend kill our baby, so I suppose that makes me a pathetic son-of-a-bitch, too.”
“Amelia has a right to her choices,” Jacob started, then frowned. Reasoning would be lost on Tristan, so instead Jacob eased him down the dark alley, toward his parked car.
He fully expected Tristan to put up a fight, but instead the young man crumpled into a heap in the front seat, whimpering against the window.
As Jacob struggled to secure the passenger seatbelt, he told himself, Tomorrow. I’ll come back tomorrow.


Connor thanked him when he pulled up to the Sullivan house, declaring through his exhaustion how Tristan had been troubled since Elizabeth died, and how he felt helpless to stop his destructive behaviors.
But all Jacob could think of was the disturbed young boy he had been when he came to Saint Louise, eyes wide, ready to fight the first person who dared say a word about him or his family. He didn’t have a father to guide him, and keep him safe. But Tristan did.
“You can thank me by giving him the support he needs,” Jacob replied, out the passenger window. “Tristan is a good boy, but he needs you to show him how to be a man.”
Connor looked stricken, but his expression faded to benign acceptance, and he nodded.
Jacob pulled away, beleaguered by sadness at realizing Tristan fell into the same category as the rest of Amelia’s family. People he once cared about as his own clan.
Now they were simply people he knew.
 

1- Nicolas

Q

Nicolas Deschanel had never been a fan of these types of meetings. Or meetings at all, for that matter.
Outside the offices of Sullivan & Associates, the sun was setting over the New Orleans’ Central Business District. Inside, exhaustion was turning to frustration, as the lawyers and Deschanels continued their verbal tug-of-war for nearly six hours.
Nicolas would periodically lose focus, his thoughts wandering to the unimportant artifacts surrounding him. The long, oval mahogany table sparkled with the scent of almond-oil furniture polish. A silver tray in the middle, housing the day's refreshments, testified to the day’s mind-numbing nature. The biscotti had grown drier, and the ice in the cut-crystal carafe had long-since melted. Condensation pooled atop the tray.
It had been a tedious afternoon. He loosened his ridiculous tie hours ago, ignoring the glares from his Aunt Colleen when the buttons on his shirt also eventually came undone. But as primary heir to the Deschanel estate, he had no choice but to continue suffering through the discussions.
On one side of the table, the Sullivan attorneys most familiar with the Deschanel estate: Colin Sullivan and his brother, Rory.
On the other side, the Deschanels who had a vested interest in the matter: Nicolas, his aunts Colleen and Evangeline, and his Uncle Augustus.
Initially, Nicolas had been offended when Aunt Colleen insisted on bringing in the cavalry. Was he not capable of handling this on his own? But after slogging through hours of dry debate, he decided he was grateful for her intervention. They knew far more about the nuances of the estate. If this had been left up to him, he'd have told everyone to go fuck themselves, and named Ana's unborn son as heir, regardless of their objections. Bastard or no.
"The Deschanel will has been inviolate for over two hundred years," Colin had rebutted at least a dozen times. He kept saying it whenever an objection was made, as if repeating would put a finer point on the mantra.
"I'm the heir, correct?" Nicolas would rhetorically ask. After their nods, “And you are my attorneys?" which earned him additional agreement. "So just change it for me!"
They would then exchange looks. Nicolas did not need to employ his newfound telepathy to read their minds: he was, clearly, not getting it.
But Nicolas did get it. He was well aware of how his ancestors had set up the Deschanel will, with very specific codicils, and rules, and other outdated legal garbage. The family had always followed those regulations, without quarrel. He understood the estate passed to the eldest son, through each generation. That, in the absence of a son, a daughter could inherit, so long as her son bore the name Deschanel.
Nicolas was never going to have children. He had no interest in following his father’s piss poor example and, conveniently, his partner, Mercy, was barren. Nicolas' younger sister, Adrienne, wanted nothing to do with the estate. Anne, his other sister, was the product of an undocumented affair and no amount of negotiation would make the legal team comfortable with her descent being considered. So Nicolas had chosen Anasofiya, his first cousin and dearest friend, as his heir. When Ana learned she was having a child, she asked Nicolas to make her son, Aleksandr, the heir immediately, instead of waiting until he reached maturity.
Filing that paperwork had launched the meeting to end all meetings. They tediously worked through most of the concerns presented, but the biggest one lingered: Ana was not married. Her child, then, would be born illegitimate.
"This is the 21st century! Who the fuck cares?" Nicolas exclaimed, to a crowd of stoic faces. They were acclimated to his unfiltered outbursts now, so it was impossible to draw a reaction from them.
"Nicolas, I realize this seems archaic to you, but abiding by these rules has been the solitary thread holding this family together," Aunt Colleen explained, in soothing tones which he found incredibly condescending despite his affection for the family matriarch. In her tan linen suit, crisp blouse, and manicured nails, she could have sat on either side of the table.
"Yes, because we are all such a happy, tightknit bunch," Nicolas said, with biting sarcasm. "Thank god for this ancient piece of paper."
"Family dynamics aside," Colin interjected, "no one has ever contested your right to be the heir. Or your father's. Or his father's."
Nicolas' other aunt, Evangeline, cleared her throat. Evangeline was a stark contrast to her older sister, Colleen: long, loose hair, no makeup. Her eyes, as always, had a wild, exotic look to them. Evangeline, the scientist, looked every bit the eccentric braniac. "This family has survived for centuries, as strong as it has, because we honor traditions. Without them, we would have no structure, no cohesion. Why, our Broussard cousins have been arguing for years the estate should be divided equally, and there should not even be an heir–"
"Fuck the Broussards!"
"Language," Colleen admonished.
"Whose side are you two on, anyway?" Nicolas snapped.
Colleen wrapped her thin fingers around Nicolas' hand. He moved to pull away, but she tightened her grip, and sent him these thoughts: I am on your side, nephew. Always. There are some battles you can't win. This is one of them. We will make this work. I promise.
Nicolas kept his steely glare, but relaxed slightly. "So, what then? I have to choose someone else? Because that's not an option."
"Ana needs to marry the father of her child," Rory Sullivan asserted. He then added, wrinkling his nose, "Or, if she doesn't know who the father is–"
"She's not a whore, Rory," Nicolas defended, through gritted teeth. "The father is Finn St. Andrews, and he’s ready and eager to play a role in his son's life."
At this, Augustus, Ana's estranged father, raised an eyebrow. He was here on her behalf, as she could not be, but this meeting had been full of displeasing revelations for the formidable businessman. A boardroom in a law office was not the best place to learn about things your only daughter had been up to.
"Nicolas, as your lawyers, we are advising you this child-heir needs to be born in wedlock, and there needs to be no dispute over who his parents are. Is there a reason Ana isn't willing to marry Finn?" Colin inquired, with an affected tone of reasonableness.
"Because she shouldn't have to? Because this isn't the fucking Middle Ages?" Nicolas bitterly retorted, followed by one of his favorite obscene hand gestures. The day, though, had worn him down. When even his two aunts—whom he respected a great deal—were defending the attorneys' stance, he knew it was time to stop being difficult, and start preparing.
"I still fail to understand why Ana cannot be here to speak for herself. No one has offered a single adequate explanation on the matter," Augustus complained gruffly. Nicolas almost felt bad for his uncle. The man truly loved his daughter but had never been capable of accepting her for who she was, instead choosing to ignore the unpleasant, or anything which didn’t fit his orderly vision of the world.
No one answered his question. The Sullivans did not know the answer, and Nicolas and his aunts were sworn to secrecy. But there was a very good reason Ana was not present to speak for herself. The same reason she was in hiding, and would stay that way, until it was safe to do otherwise.
Anasofiya Deschanel was no longer entirely human. And her unborn son, Aleksandr, would be born full Empyrean. Within weeks of birth, he would stand as tall as his two fathers.
Despite Ana being in the capable hands of one of the oldest, and most knowledgeable, of all Empyreans, her life, and that of her unborn son, were in grave danger.


After the requisite handshakes and pleasantries were exchanged later that evening, Nicolas joined his aunts for a late dinner at Galatoire's, in the Quarter.
"I know today was frustrating for you, Darling," his Aunt Evangeline empathized, after a long swallow of her Sazerac. "I'm sorry if you felt ganged up on."
Nicolas exchanged a glance with his Aunt Colleen, remembering the calming thought she sent him hours ago. "Apology accepted," he said, with unusual restraint.
"You know Colin and Rory are right. Don't you?" Colleen asked.
"No... I mean, yes, I suppose I do. But it's fucking dumb, and antediluvian. I just need that stated for the record."
"The record hereby denotes your sentiments," Evangeline acknowledged, raising her glass in the air. "And the record also notes we agree, and find this equally idiotic."
"But necessary," Colleen added firmly. She leaned in and lowered her voice, despite the restaurant being loud with chatter. "It has never been more important to protect the estate. Now that we know... all we know..."
Yes, Nicolas picked up what she was alluding to. The past months had been full of startling revelations about what it really meant to be a Deschanel. While most of the family had special abilities to some degree—telepathy, healing, telekinesis, among other things—over the generations no one had ever stopped to ask the ever-important question: Where the hell did it come from? Last winter, they had inadvertently come across the answer.
"So what do we do?" Nicolas asked. His rare deference was driven by exhaustion, but also fear. If they did not solve this to the satisfaction of the family, there could be dire consequences. This wasn't about one of the other cousins getting butt-hurt and trying to steal his inheritance. The family—all of them—was in very real danger.
"Go home tonight and speak with Finn," Colleen replied. "He may be more amenable to the arrangement than you might think. He is, after all, still very much in love with Ana, despite her leaving without him. And there's always money if sentiment isn't a selling point."
"It isn't Finn we will need to convince," Nicolas asserted, staring at the glimmering Hennessy behind the bar, calling his name.
It's been awhile, Nicolas. Are we gonna dance?


3- Tristan

Q

Tristan had been waiting his whole life to join the Deschanel Magi Collective. His mother, Elizabeth, first started mentioning it to him when he was barely out of diapers, whispering about the secretive club like it was The Knights Templar. She would tell him stories, then stop in the middle of the telling and say, Oh! The rest is secret... Collective ears only. There was no intentional cruelty in her teasing, though it sadly had the effect of ostracizing him from the woman who'd birthed him, but could hardly be credited with raising him.
He knew enough, of course. The Collective had been around for centuries, and was created with the intention of cataloguing and understanding all of the abilities Deschanels had manifested over the years. There was other business, but of course he was not privy to those endeavors. When you turn twenty-one, you can decide if you want to be a member, his mother explained. That is, if they will have you.
Yet, here Tristan was, several months shy of his twenty-first birthday, swearing the Fidelity Vow before his relatives. Aunt Colleen, the current magistrate, laid the crimson sash over his shoulder, and bade him repeat the oath: In knowledge, comes power. In power, obligation. In obligation, commitment. In commitment, solidarity. In solidarity, enlightenment.
Tristan didn't know where the words came from, or even what the hell they meant. He only knew his heart was beating so hard he could hear it thumping in his ears like a low, heavy bass line. His sweaty palms nearly dropped the wine Aunt Evangeline passed his way. He had to resist the urge to knock it back, reminding himself he was in the presence of his elders and relatives, not his Catholic school buddies. Sip, not chug.
Tristan knew better than to question why he was allowed into the fold early. He only needed to look at the solemn, drawn faces of his aunts, uncles, and cousins. Something had happened. Something bad. Perhaps his strong telepathy was needed. There wasn't another living Deschanel whose mind-reading rivaled his, and he was the only one, to his knowledge, whose telepathy was not limited by distance.
He tried to pull an explanation from their minds, but he quickly realized it was no use. The Deschanels all knew how to block.
While everyone assembled, Tristan had taken mental attendance. There were two types of Deschanels in the room: members and council. There were far more members than council, as the latter group consisted of only the heads of the various Deschanel family branches. The current council was only six, though a seventh would be chosen soon: Aunt Colleen (the magistrate), Aunt Evangeline, his mother Elizabeth, and then three cousins Tristan knew only in passing: Jasper Broussard, Pansy Guidry, and Luther Fontenot. The six were clearly demarked by the shimmering flash of gold which ran down the center of their crimson sashes, otherwise identical to the ones everyone else in the room wore.
The Magi Council often met separately to discuss major matters before including the greater population of members. Tristan was joining the latter group.
They already know why we're here. Tristan glanced between the six, looking for any expression that might betray their confidence, or give him even a hint of what was to come. All were stoic and unreadable, though. Even Jasper, who was well known in New Orleans for his theatrics, was oddly disquieted.
Tristan didn't need to wait long for his answers. As Colleen gathered the Collective around the massive mahogany table, she wasted no time in delivering explanations.
"The Council has recently learned the Deschanels are descended from a race of beings called Empyreans. It is this connection, in fact, that gives us our myriad of abilities," she began. Tristan first flinched, then felt his stomach drop to the floor. He looked around to see others' reactions but the faces were consistently passive and attentive.
There are at least two dozen members in this room. Not one of them is shocked by this revelation?
Glancing around at cousins, both familiar and unfamiliar, Tristan realized why their expressions remained neutral. Colleen often dropped knowledge bombs, in her matter-of-fact way, and so had conditioned the members against confusion and mayhem. This wasn't a debate, or a discussion intended to dissect the matter. The truth had been established, and she was simply catching everyone up so the playing field could be made equal.
Holy shit, she's serious, Tristan decided. She told a room full of people we aren't entirely human, and not a single one freaked.
Tristan listened in silence. Having taken cues from the other members on how to act, his inauguration was complete. Colleen could have declared the sun was going supernova in short order, and he wouldn't have uttered a peep. His heart raced in his excitement at being included, and being able to sit, side-by-side, with his mother as a peer. Finally.
"The Empyreans trace their roots to the origins of man, but at some point a mutation occurred, activating DNA dormant in humans. This DNA gave them their stronger abilities, longer lives, and a number of other peculiarities we don't yet fully understand."
"Many years ago," Colleen went on, "an Empyrean, Aidrik, mated with one of our ancestors. This event imbued our family with Empyrean blood. Thus, we inherited diluted versions of their abilities."
Aidrik. Tristan knew that name somewhere. Hadn't he heard his mother whispering it, on the phone?
"But," Colleen said, her voice dropping lower, "as we have learned more about Aidrik and our ancestors, we have also learned about the Empyreans. In fact, we are about to welcome an Empyrean newborn into this family."
Here? In the family? Tristan's jaw nearly dropped, though a quick glance around the room showed neutral faces, nearly stoic, from his peers. Apparently he was the only one in the room surprised to learn they had descended from a supernatural race of awesome beings. A part of him wondered if this was an elaborate joke. Perhaps some bizarre hazing ritual for his initiation.
Tristan immediately knew better. He wouldn't put it past some of the wayward cousins in the room, but Colleen would never joke about such things.
One cousin on the Guidry side, Rene, opened his mouth to speak. Before he could form words, his mother, Pansy Guidry, raised one hand, laying it quickly, and decisively, across his cheek with a stinging slap. Whimpering, Rene quickly clapped his mouth shut, and Pansy's hand lowered again, without a word. Tristan recalled the Guidrys were often not welcome at family events, though no one had ever told him why. Pansy is kind of a badass, he concluded.
Colleen continued. "We know they are governed by a group called the Eldre Senetat, and we also know this group's intentions are not benevolent. They control the Empyreans through various manipulations, and set constricting rules to live by with penalty of death for breaking them. One of these rules is they are stringently prohibited from copulating with humans."
As Colleen paused to take a sip of her water, Tristan's Aunt Evangeline spoke up. Although there was no formal Council hierarchy beyond the magistrate, Tristan always thought of Evangeline as the second-in-command based on his mother’s scattered insights. "The Senetat is unaware of the Deschanels' existence because of a protection Aidrik put over the family, and Ophélie, many years ago. But a new situation has come up which makes us all vulnerable. The family is now at risk."
"Yes, that is why we are here tonight," Colleen cut in, resuming command. "Anasofiya attempted to take her own life a few months ago." At this, Tristan finally observed the collective shocks and gasps he had been waiting for. He marveled this bit of information, and not the revelation they were some sort of quasi-superheroes, is what would invoke it.
Redirecting the emotion in the room, Aunt Colleen expanded, "Aidrik, our ancestor, was there. He saved her life. In doing so, he fused a part of his DNA to hers, employing a rare process called Sveising. This changed Ana, making her more Empyrean than human. It also changed her unborn child, who will be born into this world not human, but Empyrean."
This brought shared looks from members around the table. The Council simply nodded, clearly already aware of the disclosures being made today.
"Ana is pregnant?" Anne, one of Tristan's cousins, wondered aloud. Her pale hair bobbed in its ponytail, as her head whipped around. "Is it... Finn's?"
Tristan had to stifle a giggle. Anne had a crush on Finn ever since she first met him. Tristan's mother gossiped about it all the time. It was usually something along the lines of, She's wasting her time. The boy only has eyes for Ana.
"Yes, and yes," Colleen replied, curtly. Anne looked stricken. This was a double blow. Not only was Finn even further from her reach than she initially thought, but her beloved mentor, Colleen, had kept something from her.
"And, as I said, the Sveising changed the unborn child, but mutating the genes to be more Empyrean than human was only part of the transformation. Now, this child is not simply Ana and Finn's, but also Aidrik's."
"We discussed this, Colleen. You know this is impossible," Tristan's mother, Elizabeth, interjected. "A child cannot have more than one father. As a doctor, you shouldn't continue to repeat such silly things."
"Yes, we did discuss this already," Colleen chided, clearly displeased a fellow Council member would disagree in this forum. "An Empyrean child can. And in fact, many do. Multiple fathers give Empyreans an advantage a child with only one father does not have. Greater strengths."
Elizabeth shook her head in disbelief, but said no more.
"Go on, Colleen," Councilman Luther Fontenot urged. "We don't have to like it to be in accord."
She flashed him a small, grateful smile, and went on. "The challenge facing us is this: it is unlikely this birth will escape the Senetat's notice. If Ana, Aidrik, and the child are discovered, their lives will be in mortal danger. But beyond that, it will launch a chain reaction of events which will potentially expose this entire family to the Senetat." Colleen shifted her eyes between each person in the room before dropping her final bombshell. "Every single one of us is a violation of their laws. They would annihilate us."
Tristan couldn't help himself anymore. He was bursting with questions. "But, based on their laws, isn't the only criminal this Aidrik dude? And whoever he banged back in the day?"
A few snickers rippled across the room. Tristan's mother tensed up, defensively.
"If these were the laws of our people, I would say you were correct," Colleen responded, gently. Her words subtly admonished those who had ridiculed Tristan for his question. She was showing him it was safe and Tristan fought back the inappropriate smile which wanted to bloom in appreciation of her kindness. "But the Senetat operates by their own rules. We are a threat to them."
"How so?" Tristan pressed, with new-found confidence. "We can't even be half as powerful as they are!"
No titters this time. "We are a threat to their authority," Colleen clarified, smiling at her nephew. "If other Empyreans learned of our existence, and knew the Senetat did nothing about it, it would undermine their influence. They would have no choice but to destroy us."
Tristan thought he understood. He had read enough high fantasy to know there were laws and then there were laws. If no being existed who was powerful enough to hold the Senetat accountable, or put into doubt their potency, then they could continue to do as they pleased.
"What you're saying makes it seem like there's no hope," Remy Fontenot, Luther's son, said. "Are you suggesting we wait for them to come murder us?"
"Not at all," Colleen replied, her calm demeanor never showing even a single crack. "Aidrik has a plan to engage a subset of the Empyrean population, rebels known as Runeans. They have long been adversaries of the Senetat, living in secret, waiting for a reason to strike. Their cohesiveness has been lacking a strong leader to unite them. Aidrik believes he knows the right person to lead this revolution. They are planning to recruit him, in hopes they can attempt a maneuver before the Senetat discovers the deception. However, first, Ana must deliver a healthy son, and heir."
More questions were fired across the table. They wanted to know more about the Runeans, about this supposed leader Aidrik was planning to engage, and what their planned coup maneuver entailed. Some wanted to join the fight. Others, now understanding the true scope of the specialized orphanage, wanted to help with Nicolas and Mercy's efforts at Ophélie.
Tristan absorbed everything, like an eager disciple.
Markus, Evangeline's son, wanted to know if they had a live, or dead, Empyrean they could dissect and study.
Antoine Guidry, another of Pansy's vast brood, inquired about whether or not the family had a proper fallout bunker. Just in case.
Leander Broussard, Jasper's son, wasn't clear why they hadn't simply written Ana and her son off as collateral damage, in order to protect the family.
Amelia Jameson, Colleen's daughter, was aghast anyone was even thinking about abandoning another Deschanel.
As each of Tristan's cousins took their turns expressing a viewpoint, his mind began to wander, marveling at how the entire family's world changed in a matter of minutes. It then made him wonder what other secrets he had yet to learn about the family... and how much other crazy shit went down at a gathering of the Deschanel Magi Collective.
"I will go," Anne announced, standing proudly. Tristan blinked, realizing he had missed a whole piece of the conversation.
"You don't even like your cousin," Elizabeth scoffed. Tristan blushed. His mother sounded like a teenage girl.
Fire burned behind Anne's eyes, and Tristan worried for a moment one of the bushes outside might burst through the window and strangle his mother.
Anne was, after all, an arborkinetic. And it wouldn't be the first time she'd killed someone with her “gift.”
"That is not true," Anne asserted, the blaze subsiding as Colleen laid a soothing hand against the girl's waist. "I don't like what she's done to Finn, that's all."
"You would be a good choice, my dear," Colleen said, gently guiding Anne back down to her chair. "Your talent with the flora and fauna could come in handy. We know Ana and Aidrik are somewhere in the wilds of Wales. Your experience as a midwife in the bayou may prove useful as well, if Ana goes into labor. Thank you for volunteering, but you can't go alone." Her last statement resulted in another pointed look around the table.
Wales. Ana and Aidrik. This was a rescue mission! Tristan flew from his seat. "Send me!"
Elizabeth started so hard at this she nearly toppled out of her chair. "My child is not going to traipse around the United Kingdom with some crazy, immortal cult leaders on his trail! Absolutely not, nope, not even considering it!"
"Elizabeth, get ahold of yourself," Luther admonished, sighing under his breath.
Tristan was often embarrassed by his mother's outbursts, but at least this time he was not tethered by them. "I'm not a child anymore. I'm old enough to decide for myself, and I want to go."
"Tristan would be a good choice, too," Evangeline concurred, nodding her head thoughtfully. "He is a powerful telepath. We will need a way to communicate with whoever goes. He could keep us abreast of things, as well as keeping our dear Anne safe."
Anne blushed at this, and Tristan saw one of her tiny fists clench. She apparently did not take well to it being implied she was helpless.
"Oh, how you Deschanels like to coddle your youth!" Pansy declared. "Why, you'll turn this boy into a crying little girl if no one stops you! Is he gonna borrow your dresses, too?"
"He’s my only child now!" Elizabeth cried. She buried her face in her hands and began to sob, in her usual melodramatic fashion. "He is all I have…"
Tristan did not need to be reminded about his sister's death. Nor did he need his mother capitalizing on it for attention. "I'm going. It's settled."
It wasn't settled. At least, not right away. The debate raged for another hour, Elizabeth demanding her son be disqualified, others insisting it was a wise choice. Tristan declaring it was his choice, wise or not.
But his mother eventually grew weary, as she often did when emotions were involved. Evangeline escorted her home as the rest of the group dissembled, taking overlong with their pleasantries and goodbyes. Tristan patiently remained behind, to thank Colleen for believing in him, and allowing him to be a part of this important mission for their family.
All at once, it occurred to him why he had been brought into the Collective early. Aunt C planned this all along. She knew I would volunteer. She knew I needed to get away from here. From my mother.
Tristan understood, with a sudden rush of mature-feeling insight, it was in little ways, such as this, that Aunt Colleen had been more of a mother to him than Elizabeth had ever been. He was not nearly as abandoned as he sometimes felt.
"You have a good heart, Tristan," Colleen said. Anne and Tristan helped her as she put away the candles and china. "But don't mistake this for an adventure. I don't know what the three of you will find."
"Three?" Tristan realized he had missed more of the conversation than he initially thought.
"You, Anne, and Finn," Colleen replied, with a hint of chastisement in her voice. She knew he hadn't been paying full attention.
"Finn is going to marry Ana," Anne explained, with a troubled twist of her lips. "We're his escorts."
Interesting. Well, it still beat the hell out of lying in bed playing video games.










Chapter One: Elizabeth

Q

Elizabeth woke abruptly, sweat pooling at her brow. Her dreams only grew to levels this vivid when their reality was imminent.
Beside her, Connor lay snoring, undisturbed. He had never, not in the nearly twenty-five years they’d been married, had trouble sleeping through his wife’s episodes. She could wake screaming at the top of her lungs and he would continue on in uninterrupted, restful bliss.
As a seer, Elizabeth often saw glimpses of the future. When awake, her visions were unreliable; she was only given snippets, and much of what she saw was open to interpretation. When dreaming, however, they were painfully lucid. She could see the future in all its terror or glory, and there was no filter to help ease the burden.
Of course, as a Deschanel, this ability was not wholly unique. Her relatives were healers, empaths, and other powerfully “gifted” individuals. But the rest of them experienced things in the now. They lay their hands on someone sick and that person was healed. They sensed disquiet in another and helped soothe it. Elizabeth only ever saw what was to come. And if it came to her in a dream, it always, without fail, came to pass.
She glanced at the clock: two in the morning. Connor would be waking in a few hours to head in to the law firm. Tristan, her son, would be dead to the world until lunchtime.
Though Tristan did not figure into her dream—thank God, she could not lose another child to this wretched Curse—she still had a pressing urge to check on him. Since he was born, nearly twenty-one years ago to the day, she always feared he would stop breathing in his sleep. Some nights, even now, she sat at his bedside and watched his chest rise and fall. She’d done the same thing for Danielle too, but now Danielle was gone.
This was the life Elizabeth Sullivan led day in and day out: one of fear. Fear the Deschanel Curse would continue to strike those she loved. Terror it might take Tristan, as it had Danielle.
Tristan lay askew in his old childhood bed, long legs dangling out from the side of his sheets. Elizabeth released the sigh she’d been holding in, and sat quietly on the pine chest beside his bed. Once filled with toys and plush friends, now it lay stuffed with forgotten sports gear and a messy stack of dog-eared video game magazines.
He wasn’t in the vision. He was safe, she kept telling herself. But years later, she was still unable to get the sight of her only daughter, lying broken in the street, out of her head. Eyes open, closed, it did not matter. That image was burned in her heart and mind for all of time. It was a wound that would never heal, and a grief she would never recover from.
Though Tristan was safe (for now), there were others in the family, people she loved, who were not. Nieces and nephews she watched grow up. Children who never would.
And there was nothing—not one thing—Elizabeth could do to stop it. It was going to happen. The only unknown was when.


Chapter Three: Amelia

Q

Amelia wandered into the college pub, looking to see if anyone she knew was hanging out. Then she saw him: Jacob Donnelly, that goofball from her high school, who had enough of an Irish accent to sound like he didn’t belong here. He wore a baby-blue collared shirt, first two buttons undone and one flap defiantly pulled free of his waistband. The belt cinched at his waist struggled valiantly to keep his trousers on. Black spiky hair atop his head pointed in twelve directions, as it always had, but his facial features had matured into a finer definition. His trademark goofy smile had evolved charmingly, giving an expression bordering on arrogance, but speaking more to his innocence.
Amelia’s heart caught in her chest as his appearance produced a completely unexpected reaction. Why is it she never noticed how beautiful he was? Or how that softly-grooved cleft on his chin invited her finger-tip’s touch?
 Jacob was off in his own world, eyes closed, lost to an enthusiastic air drum solo of The Foo Fighters’ “Everlong.” He mouthed the words as his hands swung with every wild-yet-precise drumbeat, oblivious to the gathering crowd. When the song ended, he finished off his beer accompanied by applause from a handful of college kids. He offered them an exaggerated bow, and as he came back up, his eyes fell on Amelia, who shamelessly stared at him in dumbfounded awe.
“Miss Amelia Jameson! Princess of Prytania, Goddess of the Garden District,” he intoned, a great big smile spreading across his face as he sauntered over to her. His dimples appeared, accented by a light touch of facial hair. “You know it’s customary to tip when you enjoy the show.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she protested, flustered. Worse than the lie was that she couldn’t figure out why she was telling it. Playing coy had never been her thing, and she was certain he saw right through her. “I didn’t know you went to Tulane,” she added, attempting to veer the conversation away from her mortification.
The mischievous glint in his green eyes told her exactly what he thought of her falsehood. She half-expected him to flat out accuse her of gawking, when instead he asked, “Have you eaten? I was planning to take the streetcar into Carrollton and grab a burger at Camellia Grill. We can catch up along the way, and if you actually have something interesting to say, I might even buy your burger, too.”
Amelia had been too surprised to say anything but yes. And too smitten to recognize how dangerous being around him could be for her heart.
This was 1997, the year after the Deschanel Curse last struck the family, taking more than a half-dozen of Amelia’s relatives. Beyond the deaths, her cousin Adrienne went missing, and remained that way, fate unknown. Amelia’s grief was still raw and unchecked, and she hadn’t realized, until Jacob came into her life, how much she needed someone to brighten her gloomy world. Someone who was not a Deschanel.
They became fast friends, surprised at how much they had in common. Amelia found herself inadvertently looking for Jacob between classes, and caught him doing the same. She warned him she wasn’t looking for a relationship, and he assured her, with a twinkle in his eye, “Blanca, you couldn’t pin me down if you tried.” The friendship blossomed.
On weekends, they’d explore the city like a couple of adventurers, born of Jacob’s offhand comment that visitors likely knew more about the city than residents. This resulted in the two of them trying to “outdo” each other with their New Orleans facts. Amelia had a slight advantage because of her family’s rich past and connections to the area, but it quickly became apparent Jacob’s stubborn insistence on being right would lead them to an inevitable stalemate. Mere debate unsatisfactory, they took their conversations outdoors, determined to find new experiences.
They started in the Quarter, eating at a different restaurant each night after classes, bringing their historical notes with them. Often proprietors would eagerly share colorful stories beyond the dry historical accounts. Napoleon House was an especially fun experience, even though the legend about Emperor Napoleon plotting there in subterfuge was not actually true.
They branched out into the Garden District, where Amelia’s family–and many other Deschanels–lived. Jacob’s family lived closer to the river, near the wharves, but he told Amelia he spent many hours wandering the avenues as a boy, sketching some of his favorite homes. He would write stories about the people inside the houses, imagining what their lives must have been like.
“Tedious,” Amelia told him. “Mystery solved.”
“Easy for you to say.” Jacob reached over to her mouth and mocked wiping something away. “Sorry, you had a silver spoon still stuck to your lip.”
She rolled her eyes, but was smiling. “Calling me ignorant of my situation doesn’t make you somehow an expert,” she said. “But who cares about that, I want to see these sketches and stories!”
Jacob’s face flushed bright red. Embarrassment was not an emotion he showed very often, preferring to cover his awkward discomfort with dry humor. “They’re dumb. I wasn’t any good at it. Why do you think I’m going to medical school?”
“You don’t have to be good at something for it to be interesting. I love photography, but my mom and brother always tease me about how blurry the photos are. Do I care what they think?” She shrugged indifferently, as he gazed skeptically, eyebrow cocked. “Well, maybe a little,” she admitted.
“You don’t talk about your family much,” Jacob ventured. They had been sitting on a bench in Audubon Park, watching the geese play in the pond. It was spring and a light breeze formed off remnants of an earlier rainstorm, but it was an otherwise beautiful day.
“I don’t remember hearing your complete family history either, Donnelly,” she argued.
“I don’t recall you ever asking.”
“Well, I don’t recall you ever asking, either.”
“I just did,” Jacob teased. He leaned back, against the tree behind the bench, staring at her with that startlingly intense gaze of his.
“Well, my family history is well-documented,” Amelia responded with a dismissive wave, looking away to hide her unease. “Most of it is pretty simple to look up.”
“Do I look like I enjoy research?” he asked, leaning back on one elbow. When he smiled, his dimples appeared, and disappeared, his emerald eyes never leaving her. Her heart skipped a beat at how handsome he was.
Amelia laughed. “Some doctor you’re going to make then. Doctor of Bullshit, maybe.”
He sat up, feigning offense. “You know how to cut right through the heart, Amelia. Straight. Through. Clean cut.” His eyes started twitching and filling up with obviously faked tears. “Hurtful.”
“I would say I was sorry, but I don’t wish to be disingenuous.”
“Clean through the heart again! But I know how you can make it up to me…”
She lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, how?”
His face grew serious. Most of Jacob’s “serious” faces were some form of goofball mockery, but she knew his real one and this was it. Her pulse quickened. What if he asked for a kiss? What would she do? Her heart was already softening toward him and she’d been thinking it might be prudent to start spending less time together.
“First, I have to confess something to you,” he said. Her eyes widened, but he kept talking. “I actually know quite a bit about your family.”
“Then why did you ask me about it?” she demanded. His revelation had the effect of an ice cold shower. Foolish to think he wanted to kiss her! “I don’t understand where you're going with this.”
“Calm down, Blanca,” he said, lightly. “This isn’t some silly romantic comedy where you discover the dude you’ve been hanging out with has an ulterior motive. I didn’t plan meeting you on campus, getting closer to you and extorting you for information, only to fall in love with you against my better judgment.”
A smile played at the corner of her lips. He was such an ass! She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of a full smile though, until he told her what he was up to.
Jacob raised an impertinent eyebrow. “Not as funny as it sounded in my head? Okay, well, anyway... I know about all of the things that happened to your family last year.” He let that sink in.
Amelia’s breath caught, but she hid her annoyance. “Everyone does, Jacob, it isn’t exactly a secret,” she said coolly. Where was he going with this? Had she misjudged him all along?
“When your Uncle Charles, and his family, got into that car accident down near Abbeville, my mother followed the story closely. She couldn’t get over how sad it was, and how horrible it must have been for your cousin, Nicolas… both parents dead, three of his sisters also dead, and one completely missing. Her interest drew me in and I found myself wondering what happened to that family. Like I used to do with the Garden District houses when I was a boy.”
He looked for her reaction, saw none yet, and kept going. “I approached Nicolas once but he wasn’t very nice to me. I tried to give him my condolences and offered my help in finding his sister. He laughed at me and then told me to go fuck myself.”
At this, Amelia chuckled. This was exactly the response she would have expected from Nicolas, especially then. “He’s like that with everyone.”
“Yeah, he's charming. But I couldn’t stop thinking about Adrienne. How does someone disappear? If she had died, there would have been evidence of it.”
She interrupted him, wincing. Two years after this discussion, they found Adrienne alive and well. At the time of this otherwise happy memory, Amelia still keenly felt Adrienne had died, primarily because she could no longer sense her young cousin. None of the empaths or seers in the family could, either. “The police said the… gators probably got to her.”
“Amelia, you’re a student of biology. You know even if that happened, there would still be some evidence… pieces of her clothes, something. The heir of Charles Deschanel’s fortune… completely disappeared.” He stopped and his voice took a softer tone. “I’m sorry, I didn’t come here to lecture you about your family. Putting my foot in my mouth is not a skill I’m proud of. I know this is still a fresh wound.”
She nodded. “It is. Very fresh.”
Jacob put his hand over hers. “I am so sorry. This was a bad idea.” Amelia ventured a look up, and in his eyes saw a kindness that gave her comfort unlike anything else had since the tragedies.
She put her other hand over his. “You’re fine, Jacob. Really. Go on.”
He didn’t move his hand, and continued. “So I thought back to earlier in the year and remembered what happened to your brother.”
Amelia said nothing. She missed Benjamin every day. Amelia loved both her brothers, but she had loved Ben best.
He gently squeezed her hand as it was sandwiched between his. “And I thought, how can one family go through so much? And then at Christmas…”
“Danielle,” she finished. Tristan’s sister.
He nodded. “It seemed almost unreal for one family to go through so much in a single year. It was really Adrienne’s disappearance that piqued my interest to do more research. I found a lot of information about your family online.”
“I can’t say I’ve ever looked,” Amelia said, meticulously wiping away a tear that had sprung up. For Amelia, tears could be dangerous, her emotional acuity both a “gift” and potentially her destruction. “But I’ve never needed to, because my family keeps good records.”
“Mine didn’t,” he said, without elaboration. “So in my digging, I discovered what happened last year was not the first time large-scale tragedy struck your family. Maybe you already know those details.”
“I do.”
“I figured. But what was interesting to me was a group of archived letters I found on a genealogy website. Someone had posted them anonymously as a contribution to family records, so I don’t know where they came from. They were letters between an Ophelia Deschanel and a friend of hers, someone named Edna Wallace. Do those names sound familiar?”
“Edna doesn’t, but Ophelia was my mother’s great-aunt. She died the year I was born.”
“She lived a long time,” he agreed. “In the letters, she talks about the stuff that happened through generations of your family, and she specifically states her belief none of it was an accident.”
Amelia’s heart skipped. She had never seen these letters, and was even more alarmed they were online, for the public to see. She thought she knew where he was going, but was terrified of what he might say next. Would he laugh at the superstitions of her family? What if he asked if she believed in it? Surely he would. What would he think of her if she confessed the truth?
She swallowed. “Go on.”
“Amelia, are you aware that some members of your family believe the Deschanels are cursed?”
A sensation, not unlike the pressure of being underwater, came over Amelia. The world around her muted unnaturally, and she felt light-headed as her heart attempted to thump clear out of her chest. How was she to answer this question? Honesty was an option, but she might lose him completely if he saw her as a superstitious biddy. She had never wanted to be defined by her belief in this, and she had never, ever shared it outside the family. Amid the swirl of emotions, she also considered perhaps it would be for the best if he did bolt.
Ultimately, Amelia would never deceive anyone. It was not in her to pretend to be someone she wasn’t. She always spoke the truth, come what may.
“Yes, Jacob, I am,” she declared, head up, shoulders squared.
“Do you believe in it?” he hedged, carefully.
She paused only briefly. If he judged her for it, then so be it. “Yes,” she said, “I do.”
Jacob nodded slowly, then moved his top hand off hers. She drew in a nervous breath. What had she done? Then he lifted the same hand and gently laid it against the side of her face, in an entirely unexpected tenderness. Amelia closed her eyes and let herself lean into his touch, as he kissed her forehead.
“Does it feel good to finally say it out loud?” he asked.
She nodded, but her throat was too constricted to respond. This was not how she expected this conversation to go, if she were ever to have it. He still hadn’t told her what he thought, but his kindness assured her that he wasn’t running for the hills. Her emotions warred between relief, and growing fear of her feelings for him.
“I don’t know what to think about it Amelia, but I grew to respect your aunt through her writing. And while I don’t know your mother all that well, she seems like an incredibly sharp lady. She would have to be to operate on brains all day, right? And obviously, she produced you.” Jacob smiled warmly. Her heart rate slowly subsided to normal.
“If three very smart, astute women believe in this, then there’s something to it. I don’t know what, exactly, but something,” he concluded.
When she sat speechless he added, “I didn’t plan for you to show up at the pub and ogle me, Amelia. I never expected any of this, but since we’re here now, I thought you should know. I don’t want secrets between us.”
Amelia’s eyes welled with more perilous tears as the weight of this discussion pushed her thoughts to more serious matters. “I can never have children.”
He processed that for a moment and then nodded. “Okay.”
She released a long, slow breath. Jacob didn't think she was crazy. He knew her darkest truths, and he was still sitting beside her.
“Amelia, I don’t want children,” he said to her, in a tone that suggested he’d been mulling her comment over. “I never have. I didn’t have… well, the best childhood growing up. Maybe I will tell you about it someday. But I want to dedicate my life to helping others. I could live happily with someone amazing by my side. Someone who also accepts children aren’t a part of our future.”
Their careful tempo established, Jacob allowed her to digest his words.
When she didn’t speak, he clarified, “I’m not proposing, you ridiculous girl! I’m not even asking you out.”
Amelia drew back in mock offense. “What the hell was all that about then, Donnelly?”
He put his arm around her shoulders and she leaned into him, easily. It felt natural, as if she were with family. “Because I want you to know you’re safe with me.”
She fell in love with Jacob Donnelly, at precisely that moment. From then on, there was never a chance of protecting her heart, for it already belonged to him, and always would.
With Jacob, she was safe.





    

Chapter One: Nicolas

Q

L
iving no longer interested me.
This decision was a rare instance of clarity in nearly thirty years of debaucherous living. I could not pinpoint the exact moment when it initially crossed my mind. Hell, I couldn’t tell you when it went from a whim to a done deal. Like most things in my life, it didn’t occur to me slowly. The idea did not evolve, although looking back, every moment leading up to my realization essentially shouted the same forgone conclusion.
I was only numbly unaware of my plan as I gassed up the Porsche, or as I packed my small leather bag, carefully placing inside the box housing my father’s handgun. Even the drive to Deschanel Island on New Year’s Day was free of interesting revelations. If I were the insightful type, I’d have started putting the puzzle pieces together sooner; I’d have recognized this sojourn to my family’s private island was not just another one of my notorious, spur-of-the-moment getaways. This was more than Deschanel spontaneity rearing its self-indulgent head.
There were plenty of assholes who expected something like this from me years ago, after the accident that killed off most of my family.
I grew up with four half-sisters. Products of my father’s inability to stop rutting with his French maid. Sisters my father loved far more than he ever loved his only son. This didn’t bother me the way it should have. I grew up doing whatever I pleased, whenever I pleased, however I pleased, and there was no one who cared enough to stop me. Even my own mother, who I loved despite her faults, was too self-absorbed in misery of her own creation to tend to my emotional needs.
What should have been an exclamation point in my life was, in reality, more of a footnote. My entire family–except my youngest sister, Adrienne–died in a car accident deep in bayou country. At the ever-so-tender age of twenty-one, I was faced with unfathomable tragedy. Most of the family biddies were on edge, waiting for me to do something characteristically selfish like drink myself into oblivion and walk down the Mississippi River levee naked.
But I was too stubborn to give the Deschanel Sewing Circle the satisfaction of being right. Besides, I’d already done my share of drinking naked on the levee. I could think of far more creative ways to go off the deep end.
It was easier to let them believe I didn't care. I loved my father even if he was a prick. I loved my conniving mother, even if it was her fault he excluded me. And I loved my half-sisters too, though they probably never knew it.
My illusion was apparently very convincing. I should’ve been on suicide watch; people should’ve been concerned for my frame of mind and personal safety. The kitchen at Ophélie should have been swimming with shitty casseroles. But it wasn’t. Because no one saw me mourn. Friends, other family, our lawyers, staff all assumed I didn’t care. They mistook my lack of tears as a sign of apathy.
Although beyond their understanding, I did experience sadness. I grieved for what I could have had, but never did. And now, never would.
But this wasn’t why I came to Deschanel Island to die. It had nothing to do with some repressed grief or inexorable loneliness stemming from my crappy upbringing, or from my family’s accident. That was almost a decade ago. I’d experienced very little heartache in my life since, and despite my often dysfunctional rearing, I’d never been lonely. My life had always been pretty fucking good, if I do say so. And up until a month ago, I was happy.
I knew what people thought; I partied, traveled, passed from one experience to another as a way of making up for the lack of sincere affection in my life. I let people believe that because it sounded a lot less fucked up than just admitting I preferred my lifestyle to normalcy. I loved excess. I loved money. I loved women.
Of course, it was love, and my screwed up definition of it, which brought me to this point.


My family had owned the small island off the Gulf Coast of Louisiana for many years. Since before I was born, but how long exactly I really didn’t know, or care. What I did know is that it was small, private, and there would be no chance of encountering another living soul.
There were five houses altogether on Deschanel Island, all owned by the Deschanel estate. Rentals, mainly, although there’d be no tenants at all now, as I’d been very clear with our agent I wanted the island to myself until the end of January. I didn’t know how long it would take me to sort my shit out, but I definitely didn’t need tourists enjoying the show. Of course, I didn’t consciously acknowledge I was gonna off myself when I made my plans, so my subconscious must have been in control, showing a rare moment of foresight and clarity.
Neither Oz nor Ana had been surprised at my decision to go away for a while. Guilt, most likely.
“You do realize that, unless you bring them with you, there will be no women, and no booze, correct?” Oz had said. I resented him for thinking we’d come to the point where jokes were okay again. Newsflash, asshole: I still hate you.
Ana had been less flippant about it, instead sending me a brief email with the line: This isn’t like you. Do you wanna talk? No, she hadn’t earned the right to have an opinion about my life again, either. That email, like all the others she’d written to me in the past month, went unanswered and promptly deleted.
Why I continued to humor Oz, but not Ana, was somewhat of a mystery to me. I only knew I felt the need to punish her more, because her actions broke my heart the most.
But they could both go straight to hell, as far as I was concerned. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be sitting in my parents’ beach house with my father’s .357 on my lap.
The only two people I had ever cared about–the only two people in the world who I knew cared about me–were now the only two people in the world I wanted nothing to do with. But, like a chump, I continued letting things go on in their vaguely passive manner. Continued my surface-level discussions with Oz, and resisted the urge to reply to Ana’s tentative emails with a vitriolic rant. Continued pretending superficially I was over what they had done. Ironic really, that my method of coping with a loss a decade prior, was essentially the same manner in which I was functioning now.
We had an uneasy truce. I wanted nothing to do with either of them, but I was unable to find the energy, or wherewithal, to bring things to a dramatic conclusion. What was more, I felt the bizarre need to protect their ungrateful, deceitful asses. I even went to the trouble of writing a suicide note which exonerated them from all responsibility or guilt. Infuriating.
Anger was easier, anyway. 
Storm clouds formed over the crystal blue water. It was too late in the season for hurricanes, but a winter storm in the Gulf could be equally nasty. I supposed I could wait until tomorrow to do the deed. It wasn’t like I was on a damn schedule.
I ran my fingers over the cold steel of my father’s gun. I actually had to look online to figure out how to shoot the cursed thing. Oz knew about guns. Hell, he’d handled one like a pro not so long ago, back when everyone’s world started to fall apart.
Why did Oz have to unburden his conscience on me? If ignorance was bliss, I had lived an entire life of utopia. I was perfectly happy not knowing a goddamn bit about anything. I liked that my only concern in the world was whether to spend Christmas in Switzerland, or France. I didn’t care what my apathy said about me, because I usually didn’t give a damn what others did with their lives, either.
Knowing about Oz and Ana changed everything. Now that I knew, the rug had been pulled out from underneath my hazy, fantastical world, and I was standing on a foundation of crumbling sand. I had to face reality: all people were selfish creeps, and I was but one among many.


Chapter Twenty-Five: Anasofiya

Q

B
eing back in New Orleans was uncomfortable. I’d hoped it would be a relief from the anxiety in Maine, but instead the dark hand of self-loathing gripped my heart tighter, squeezing the air right out of me. I could go anywhere… Paris, London, Delhi… and the feeling would only continue to grow. I knew that now. Had likely known it all along, and ignored reality in favor of cleaving foolishly to my idealistic dreams.
The darkness squeezed hardest when I saw Finn waiting for me at the Portland Jetport. I didn’t know whether to be more shocked he had found out and come for me, or that I hadn’t seen it coming. In one hand, his packed bag, signaling his intention to join me, regardless of my destination. In the other, the beautiful ring I'd left on the nightstand.
What are you doing here? I asked, vacantly. There was little emotion left in me; I spent the night before ridding myself of the requisite tears.
Silly girl, Finn said, closing the gap between us. His bag fell to the dirty linoleum floor, and his strong, thick arms encircled me. Protectively, lovingly. Finn loved me beyond anything I deserved. He knew who I was, and loved me in spite of it. Because of it.
I allowed myself to melt in his arms, where it felt safe. One of the biggest surprises of my life had been learning I loved him back, something I didn’t believe myself capable of. I hadn’t left him for my good, but for his.
I love you, Ana, he had said, pulling back and inspecting my tired, weary face. You don’t have to run away anymore. And if you insist upon it, I’ll be joining you.
We stood there in the crowded airport, holding each other, both of us desperate for different things. His caring, pure heart beat strongly through his thin white shirt, and I knew for certain there was no greater man in all the world.
But I was not a good woman. No, my heart was not pure. Not strong. Not loyal.
First, I had slept with Oz. My old friend; my married friend. That evening remained a blur of emotion and sensuality, and I didn’t wish for further clarity on the matter. It was what sent me to Maine, fleeing my demons. Then, Jonathan, Finn’s brother. It didn’t matter that I’d done nothing wrong; that Finn and I had only been friends at the time. The deception of keeping it from Finn was almost unbearable, and Jon’s treatment of me a most deserving punishment.
And then, Finn had found out about Jon and I. And, rather than turning me away, he pulled me closer. Asked me to marry him. I know you, Anasofiya Aleksandrovna Vasilyeva Deschanel, he had said. I know you like my own heart.
You don’t know the dark things in my heart, Finn. It’s rotten, and it will poison you, too.
Silly girl. For such an intelligent woman, you say the oddest things. Your heart is dark from your own sadness. From not allowing yourself the happiness you deserve. I can give it to you, and do you know why?
I don’t.
Because I know you. I know who you are, and I don’t want you to change. I absolutely forbid it.
Yet, I had watched him disown his own brother, for being much like me. Jon was dark, emotionally corrosive, and lacking many qualities men needed to connect with others. When I reminded Finn of this hypocrisy–that it was somehow okay for me to be like this, but not for Jon–he gently corrected me.
Ana, you are filled with remorse and the desire to be good; to do good. Jon does as he wants, with zero regard for who he hurts in the process. It took me years to finally see him for who he is. He won’t change.
Neither will I.
You don’t need to. You’re perfect just the way you are.
Was Finn really so blind? Or was he correct in saying the difference between Jon and I was reflected in our conscience, or lack thereof? I had a hard time believing Jon had never agonized over who he was, the way I did. Rarely was anyone entirely bad.
But even I could not deny Jon’s treatment of me in those final weeks was reprehensible. It came to a peak in one final, horrible moment when he attempted to force himself on me in the absence of being able to express himself in any other meaningful way.
Finn was devastated. Rather than lashing out, or pulling away, he discovered an even deeper love than he had before. What I needed, though, was space. Reluctantly, he gave it to me. I stayed at my mother’s old house while my head cleared.
Shortly after, Aunt Colleen, my father’s sister, unexpectedly showed up in Maine. Colleen’s empathic daughter, Amelia, had sensed my distress and alerted her mother. My other aunt, Elizabeth, confirmed it through some telepathic snooping. The women in my family were entirely unapologetic about their solicitous use of abilities on others.
It was so nice to see her, even in my wretched frame of mind. Despite my stepmother’s attempts, Aunt Colleen was the nearest I had to a mother in the family, my own having died giving birth to me. Her presence soothed me at a time when I thought nothing could.
Aunt Colleen was one of those who believed in strength through knowledge. To her, empowering me came at the cost of revealing misconceptions. Truths I could have lived without knowing, but, now that I did know, I could not ignore. My mother, who I idolized my whole life, was not who I thought she was. My actions–my innate ability to hurt all those I loved–were not unique. I was just like my mother.
Aunt Colleen also pointed out the careful illusion my father, Augustus had crafted. His great love for his first wife, and for me, motivated him to protect me from the hopelessness which consumed my mother. I understood my aunt was trying to help me see I also had my father’s compassion, but it was far easier to focus on the negative.
When Colleen left Maine, I knew my departure was also imminent. But then Finn found his mother’s ring, and professed an eternity of loyalty to me. He promised to accept me. I don't know, I had said. I will wait forever, he insisted, gently.
Then Oz sounded his call to arms, and Finn came along for the ride, against my wishes.
Finn slipped his arms around my waist, snapping me back to reality. He smiled, laying a kiss against my forehead before shifting his mouth lower. I love you, he mouthed, moving his lips to my own. That was his thing; a moment meant only for us. As if I were the only woman in the world.
I let his lips rest on mine for several moments. I could feel his smile as he kissed me. Love. It was not about darkness, it was about light. I wished I could stay in the light with Finn.
“I’m going to go find something to drink. Want anything?” Finn asked.
I nodded. “Water is fine. Thanks.”
Moments later, Oz walked in. The last time I saw him, in Maine, we’d exchanged brief apologizes. There had been no meaningful conversations since.
Looking at him now, I did not know what I felt. He was as much a part of me as Nicolas, but so many things had happened; so much had changed.
“Ana,” he said in my ear, kissing my cheek. No matter what happened between us, Oz was still a comfort to me, just as Nicolas was. I wished things could go back to how they had once been, where the three of us did everything together. When our mistakes were trivial, and forgotten the next day.
“How are you?” I asked, pleasantly.
“I’ve been better,” he replied, with a hollow laugh. “But it appears you have, too.”
I smiled. “Is it that obvious?”
Oz returned my smile. “I guess I’ve just known you too many years to not see when you’re troubled.”
I nodded, unsure of how to respond. I knew Oz would offer a caring shoulder if I needed it, but talking about this was not therapeutic for me. Instead, it just forced the feelings to linger and fester. “We’ve all been through a lot,” I said, finally.
Oz let out a long, measured breath. “Ain’t that the truth. Has Nicolas talked to you?”
I shook my head. Oz’s lips parted, presumably to start into some heartening explanation about how Nicolas would come around and things would be okay, but he seemed to think better of it. Another sign of how much our relationship had changed.
“How is Adrienne?” I asked.
I cringed as his face fell. Was it in inappropriate for me to ask about Adrienne, after what passed between Oz and me? She was still my cousin, no matter what had transpired. My desire to disappear deepened.
“She's been better,” Oz admitted. “In fact, I need to say my goodbyes and go home to her now.”
I started to ask him to give her my regards, but thought better of it. I did not wish to make things even more uncomfortable for him. “It was good to see you,” I said, cordially.
He smiled sadly and pulled me into a quick embrace before walking out, leaving me feeling somehow worse.
I found Finn in the kitchen. He was staring out the window, lost in thought, but there were no drinks in front of him.
“Are you okay?” I asked, sliding up behind him. I was always a little wary of anyone when they did something I wasn’t expecting.
“It’s nothing,” Finn said, his last word trailing sad and distant.
“It’s something,” I said, growing worried. “Tell me.”
Without turning around, he took a deep breath. “I was just remembering what happened in November. And I was thinking, what if Alex had gotten his hands on you? Killed you?” He turned around then, after I put a soft hand on his shoulder. “I know it’s not healthy to think this way, but every time I look at you….” He put one large, softly calloused hand against my face. “I would die if I lost you.”
I pulled his head down to my chest in comfort, reminding him that he had, in fact, found me and everything had worked out. He didn’t cry, but I felt his agony as if it were my own.
If I really loved you, I wouldn’t put you through this. I still have to leave, as much for you as for myself. You deserve better, and I cannot continue this endless torture in knowing so.



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