Chase Beauchamp rolled his Harley to a stop outside the morgue on Earhart. He let the engine idle, the low rumble filling the humid night air with its sultry song. The stale stench of death seemed to ooze from the pores in the brick building, undulating into the parking lot like a suffocating fog.
He killed the engine and stared at the heavy, metal door, a chill creeping up his spine as the memory of his last trip to the morgue played in his mind. He still had nightmares about the twenty minutes he’d spent in the cold locker, hiding from the same cop he was about to meet now. Exhaling a curse, he dismounted his bike.
Go in. Check out the body. Get the hell out. That’s all he had to do. At least he wasn’t trying to steal the damn thing this time.
He heaved open the door and blinked as his eyes adjusted to the stark white reception room. Though what kind of reception one could give to anyone who came to identify a body, he had no clue. The sharp tinge of bleach in the air did nothing to mask the sour, musty aroma of dead flesh. He tried to keep his facial expression neutral as he scanned the empty room, but the smell was more offensive than a Saturday night on Bourbon Street. Something about preserved dead people gave him the creeps.
And where the hell was Macey?
The door swung open, and a man with clean-cut, light-brown hair ambled in. If his shoulder holster didn’t give him away, his cocky gait screamed cop. Chase had seen this guy before. Macey’s partner, Bryce.
“You Chase Beauchamp?” He raked his gaze over Chase’s tattooed arms before lingering a little too long on the piercing in his right eyebrow.
Chase nodded and returned his stare.
“Detective Bryce Samuels.” He held out his hand. “I’m Detective Carpenter’s partner.”
Chase shook his hand, and not a hint of magic seeped from his skin. This guy was all human. “Where’s Macey?”
“She’s checking up on a lead. Asked me to show you the body. Apparently, you might be able to pick up on something she didn’t.” He made air quotes with his fingers and looked toward the front desk. “Where’s the mummy?”
A scrawny kid with shaggy red hair typed something into his computer and shot to his feet. “Locker twenty-six. Did you prepare him?” He cut his gaze toward Chase and grimaced.
Bryce slapped Chase on the shoulder and walked toward a swinging door. “She’s a mummy. Prepared?”
“As I’ll ever be.” He followed Bryce down a narrow hallway illuminated in sickly-green fluorescent lights. The putrid color did nothing for the ambience. Then again, a storage house for the freshly dead didn’t need to be warm and cheerful.
They turned a corner, and Bryce lowered his voice. “Macey tells me you have a similar ability to her spirit sensors.”
“Something like that. I’d say mine’s a little more pronounced.” How much did this guy know about his partner? Macey was the alpha’s mate and the only werewolf on the New Orleans police force. Being second born, she lacked the ability to shift, but nearly all werewolf offspring possessed some sort of power.
Bryce stopped outside a door. “So you can see ghosts? Or spirit energy? I think that’s what she calls it.”
“Sort of.” Not at all. Macey suspected the victim died of supernatural causes, but she didn’t know enough about the paranormal world to make the call. She’d had no idea she was a werewolf herself until a few months ago. Whether or not the pack got involved in this case would be up to Chase. Then it would be Macey’s job to make sure the police never discovered the truth.
Bryce pushed open the door and strode toward a locker. Chase followed, trying his best to not think about how it had felt to be inside one. Suffocating. Cold. Morbid. Another chill spiraled from his tail bone up to the base of his skull.
Sliding the drawer open, Bryce pulled back the sheet to reveal the corpse. Dry, brown skin stretched tight across the boney figure, as if someone had wrapped a science class skeleton in leather and slapped a bleached-blonde wig on it. Thin lips stretched back into a torturous howl, and the sunken cheeks looked like they’d crumble to bits if he touched them.
But the most haunting aspect of all was the gaping, hollow eye socket.
Though his skin crawled like a swarm of spiders skittered across the surface, Chase leaned in closer to the shriveled corpse. “Any idea what happened to her eye?”
Bryce pinched his brows as if looking at the body caused him pain. “No clue. Can’t you ask her ghost?”
“Right. Let me see if I can pick up anything.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to mimic the way Macey acted when she read energy.
The rancid death stench made his stomach turn. How could humans not be bothered by this smell? He swallowed the sour taste of bile from his throat and raked his gaze over the body. “Looks like something sucked the life right out of her.”
“No kidding. Autopsy says her blood has turned to powder. Pretty much all her insides have.”
“Hmm. A vampire wouldn’t have left any blood behind at all, so it’s safe to rule that out.”
Crap, he shouldn’t have said that. Chase shoved his hands in his pockets and forced a smile. “I’m kidding.”
He chuckled. “You never know in this town. A few months ago, we had so many people trying to convince us werewolves were involved in a case that Macey started to believe it was true.”
Chase shook his head, laughing off the statement. “Women.”
“Right. So, no lingering spirits then?”
“None that I can see.” Not that he could have detected one if it were there. Like most first-born weres, Chase’s only powers were massive strength and the ability to shift into wolf form. “Does she have any other markings? Punctures or cuts?”
“She has a tattoo beneath her collar bone. It’s hard to tell, the way the skin shriveled up, but it looks Celtic.” Bryce pulled the sheet down to reveal a warped, black design on the woman’s chest.
He could see how a human would mistake the twisting, knot-like pattern for Celtic, especially in this distorted condition, but the tattoo had nothing to do with the Irish. This woman belonged to a witch’s coven, though which one, he couldn’t be sure.
The sour taste returned to the back of his mouth. Damn witches. They were a bunch of selfish pricks who didn’t give a shit about the rest of the supernatural community. This woman had probably pissed someone off high up in the coven, and they’d discarded her like trash, leaving the mess for the werewolves to clean up. It looked like the pack would be getting involved after all.
Bryce covered the body with the sheet and shoved the drawer shut. “Recognize the design?”
“No. You’re right. It’s probably a Celtic knot. Sorry I couldn’t be more help.”
Bryce narrowed his eyes, studying him. “Don’t you need to touch something? Or meditate?”
“Macey always puts her hands on the walls and closes her eyes and starts swaying like she’s hypnotized.”
Damn, this guy was perceptive. If Macey had given Chase a head’s up, he might have been prepared to put on a show. As it stood now, he just wanted to get the hell out of that stinking cesspool of death. “My ability doesn’t work that way.”
Bryce lifted a shoulder and nodded toward the door. “Whatever you say, boss. I won’t even pretend to understand what y’all can do. Frankly, it’s a little weird.”
If he only knew the half of it. “I can see how it would seem that way.” He followed the officer to the reception area, the tightness in his chest loosening now that a solid wall stood between him and the bodies.
Bryce stopped at the desk and signed his name on a clipboard before turning to Chase. “We rely on Macey’s ability a lot.”
Chase nodded. “Reading spirit energy is a handy talent.”
“She said you’d fill in for her while she’s on her honeymoon in a few months. Help us out if we need it.” He raised his eyebrows, silently asking for confirmation.
“Did she?” Strange the alpha himself hadn’t told him about this new assignment. Chase would need some lessons on pretending to be psychic if he was going to keep this charade up.
Bryce popped a piece of gum into his mouth and clenched it between his teeth. “That okay?”
“You get any more weird cases, give me a call. I like weird.”
Bryce nodded curtly. “Will do.”
Chase shook his hand and shoved open the door. Thick, sultry air enveloped him as he treaded through the parking lot to his bike, breathing deeper now that he’d gotten away from the damn morgue and its foul stench. Thunder clapped in the distance, and his arm hairs stood on end as the storm clouds gathered above.
He glanced at his watch and cursed under his breath. Luke would expect a full report, but he didn’t have time to swing by the bar. Bekah had a class tonight, and the one thing Chase liked better than hunting demons was babysitting for his sister.
A text would have to do. Victim’s a witch. Insides turned to powder. Never seen anything like it. Babysitting tonight. He mashed the send button with his thumb, shoved the phone in his pocket and then headed home.
He’d be happy if he never stepped foot inside that morgue again, but something told him he’d be spending a lot more time there, thanks to the alpha’s mate.
* * *
Rain Connolly sat at a table in the darkened bakery and stared out the window. Using the side of her hand, she wiped the condensation from the pane and leaned toward the glass. Fat water droplets danced across Royal Street, pooling near the sidewalk and cascading down the storm drain, washing the sludge from the road. She’d always loved a good thunderstorm, and not just because of her name.
The cleansing act of water from above rinsing away the impurities on the ground soothed her. If only her own sins were so easily washed away.
The sudden showers had sent tourists and locals alike scattering for cover. Now the rain and the streetlights had the stage to themselves, and they created a choreographed routine Rain could’ve watched for hours. The boom of thunder interrupted the musical cadence of the shower, but the droplets found their rhythm again, falling individually before becoming one with the steady stream running down the street.
She sighed as a woman rounded the corner, stomping her heavy, black boots through the puddles, disrupting the dance of the downpour. Though the hood of her jacket hid her face in shadows, the woman’s deep-magenta aura and purposeful strides couldn’t be mistaken. Rain leaned away from the window and clutched the pendant hanging from her neck. Though the goddess seemed to have abandoned her, a quick prayer wouldn’t hurt.
The woman banged on the door as a bright bolt of lightning flashed across the sky, followed by a massive clap of thunder so loud it rattled the windows of the nineteenth-century building. She squealed and knocked harder.
As tempting as it was to leave her landlord out in the storm, Rain rose from her chair and opened the door. “I’m closed, Ingrid.”
“I’m not here for cake.” Ingrid folded her umbrella and left it on the front steps before striding inside and slipping the hood off her head. She shook out her crimson curls and huffed as she examined the wet ends of her hair. “Your rent is late, and your fees need to be paid.”
“Fees for a coven to which I don’t belong.” Rain walked deeper into the storefront, but Ingrid lingered in the doorway.
“Do we have to have this conversation every month? If you want to operate as a witch, you either join the coven or you pay the fees. It’s not a difficult concept.”
She put her hands on her hips in a challenging pose. The concept wasn’t the difficult thing. “Then let me join the coven.”
Ingrid rolled her eyes. “Only real witches can join.”
The corner of Rain’s mouth twitched as a spark of heat flashed through her body, and she inclined her chin. “I am a real witch.”
“Then let me join.” Snow padded in from the back room and set a stack of freshly-washed plates on the counter.
Ingrid let out an irritated sigh and wiped the dripping hair from her forehead. “We’re not taking chances with your sister either. You two don’t know when to quit, do you?”
“Connollys never quit.” Snow stood next to Rain and crossed her arms, her platinum blonde hair swishing as she shook her head.
Rain would argue to her last breath with any witch who challenged her heritage. Yes, she was cursed, but magic did flow through her veins. Unfortunately, though, even joining the coven wouldn’t help her current situation. She sat on a barstool. “I don’t have the money.”
“Business has been slow, but I have a potential wedding client coming in tomorrow. If they book, I can pay the rent or the fees. Not both. Not now. Can I have an extension?”
Ingrid opened her mouth as if to speak, but she closed it again. “You know I can’t show you any kindness. Renting the building to you is all the risk I’m willing to take. I wouldn’t have even let you sign the lease if I’d known about your curse beforehand.”
Rain cringed inwardly. She’d been required by law to inform the coven priestess of her curse when she moved here, but she’d purposely signed the lease on the shop before she did. It wasn’t a selfless act, but what else could she have done? She needed the prime location if her business would ever take off. “It’s not a kindness. Decent landlords give their tenants extensions all the time. One more month.”
“I’m not even going to chance being decent. Late fees started accruing last week. If I don’t receive your payment in two weeks, you’ll be evicted.” Her eyes softened. “I’m sorry. I don’t like being this way. It’s not you…”
She stiffened. “It’s my curse. I understand.”
Ingrid attempted a sympathetic smile, but her mouth merely twitched as she opened the door. “Don’t take it personally.”
Rain returned the gesture with a faux grin. “How could I not?”
Snow locked the door after the landlord left and turned to her sister. “She’s right, you know? You shouldn’t take it personally. I bet they’d all love you like I do if they got to know you.”
“It’s not about being loved. Or even liked.” She sighed and shook her head. “The second people find out about my curse, they act like I’ve got a contagious disease.” And she deserved the punishment. She was lucky she’d gotten settled in before word of her curse spread through the community.
“They’re being cautious.”
She folded her hands in her lap and picked at her pale-pink nail polish. “What am I going to do? If I lose the bakery, I’ll be on the street.”
Snow sat on the stool next to her and wrapped her arm around her shoulders. How long had it been since another witch had gotten close enough to touch her?
Leaning into her sister’s side, Rain let the affection calm her. “Careful comforting me. Don’t be too kind.”
“Don’t be silly; I’m comforting myself.” She laid her head on Rain’s shoulder. “We can stop selling the enchanted cookies. If we’re a human bakery, you won’t owe the fees.”
Rain let out a dry laugh. “The spells are what pay the bills between weddings.”
“True. Spellbound Sweets wouldn’t be much without the spells.” She sat up straight. “Let me pay the fees. I’m the one operating as a witch anyway. I should be the one paying for the license.”
Rain rose to her feet and shuffled around the counter to put the plates away. She’d drained her savings account to get the place up and running, not allowing her sister to pay for something as small as a can of rainbow sprinkles. It was the only way to make certain her curse didn’t affect Snow. “It’s a witch’s bakery. My bakery. If you paid, it would be a kindness. I won’t let you take that risk.”
“What’s the worst that could happen? Pneumonia for a week? A sprained ankle?”
Rain closed the cabinet, her heart sinking at the thought of what her curse could do to her sister. “You could get run over by a streetcar. Or struck by lightning. Or worse.”
“Yeah, okay. Good point. The appointment tomorrow sounds promising, though. Werewolves tend to stick together, so if you can land the alpha’s wedding, we’ll have our foot in the door with their pack. They could bring in a lot of business.” She spun a circle on the barstool and grinned. “Werewolves like to eat.”
A tiny flame of hope flickered in her core before dying out. Her shoulders drooped. “Until another werewolf opens a bakery. They prefer to do business with their own kind. Don’t get your hopes up.”
“Well, there aren’t any werewolf bakeries now, and now is all that matters at the moment.” Snow leaned her elbow on the counter, resting her chin on her fist. “Let’s focus on landing this gig, and it will solve half your problems.”
“And the other half?”
She shrugged. “We’re Connolly witches. We’ll figure something out.”
Rain smiled at her sister. Snow risked so much by being here every day, and gratitude didn’t begin to describe the emotions Rain felt for her. “You’re a Connolly witch. I’m just a Connolly.” Or so everyone seemed to believe.
“Your powers may be bound, but there’s magic in your blood.” Snow leaned her forearms on the counter. “How many ingredients are left to find?”
She’d received an unbinding spell from the national witches’ council in the mail three months ago on enchanted paper. Each time she retrieved an ingredient, the next one revealed itself. “I’ve got two ingredients left. As soon as I get my hands on some Bauhinia harvested by a priestess beneath a full moon in Peru, the last one will be revealed, and we’ll be good to go. Do you really think it will work?”
Snow lifted an eyebrow. “Are you doubting my powers, sister?”
She laughed. “Of course not. But the council said only an ultimate act of selflessness could break the spell and unbind my powers.”
“Then they said seven years of repentance is enough.”
“I know that’s what the letter said. It seems strange that they’d change their minds though. I bet Mom had something to do with it.”
“So what if she did?” Snow lifted her hands as she shrugged and dropped them to her sides. “Maybe they weren’t specific enough in what an ‘ultimate act of selflessness’ is. Maybe they feel like you’ve learned your lesson.”
She traced the marble pattern on the countertop with her finger. “I guess.” If the lesson was to put others before her powers, she hadn’t had a choice but to learn. She’d been powerless for seven years. “Whatever their reasoning…I want my magic back.”
“I understand. This will work.” Snow stepped around the counter and gave her sister a hug. “I’m going home. Can I have today’s pay so I don’t get run over by a streetcar on my way?”
Rain chuckled and took two twenties from the cash register. “Be safe.”
After her sister left, Rain locked the door and turned off the lights before padding to her storage closet-turned-bedroom in the back of the shop. If this unbinding spell worked, and her curse could be broken, she might be able to save the bakery.
Bauhinia itself was easy to come by, but the stipulation that it be harvested by a priestess beneath a full moon made it difficult to find. She’d located a shop in Peru who could fill the order, but the cost of the ingredient, plus international shipping, had set her back several hundred dollars. But if she could get rid of this curse and be accepted into the witches’ community again, she’d have more than enough business to pay all her bills.
Though she’d never achieve a spot on the national council after what she’d done to earn the curse, she might be able to work her way up in the coven once they let her in. At least she could hold a position of power within the community. It was better than nothing.