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    Chapter 1

    Wyatt Fontenot tied up his airboat, but stood in it in the dark, listening to the familiar sounds of the bayou. He’d grown up in these swamps, hearing the bullfrogs, the bellow of the alligator and the plop of snakes sliding from the cypress trees into the dark waters. The constant drone of insects had been his lullaby. The soft fall of rain didn’t bring the cold, rather just ratcheted up the heat, wrapping one up in a blanket of humidity and the strange perfume of the swamp.

    He let his breath out slowly, just drinking in the sights around him. He’d always felt at home in the bayou. He’d never really much liked going other places, but now, he wasn’t certain it was the smartest thing in the world for him to be back… yet. He couldn’t breathe in cities, yet now that he’d come home, he found his chest was tight and his famous Cajun temper had settled into a slow boil in the pit of his stomach.

    “You all right, Wyatt?” Malichai Fortunes asked softly. He stood just to the left of Wyatt, in the deeper shadows of the sweeping cypress, impossible to see until he moved.

    Wyatt glanced at him. Malichai was a big man, all roped muscle and cool, with strange, almost golden eyes. He looked into a man, cutting straight through to who and what he was. Wyatt had learned to trust him implicitly. They were both bone weary. Exhausted. Four months and over four hundred rescue operations, most conducted in the “hot” zones of war. The last had gone to hell and them with it.

    “Yeah, I’m all right. Just breathing in home,” he replied.

    The scent of pipe tobacco drifted to him. The slight wind rustled through the trees, swaying the branches in a macabre fashion. He’d always enjoyed taking his city friends out into the swamp at night and scaring the hell out of them before taking them to one of the backwoods bars where they could get drunk and fight with anyone who looked at them wrong.

    He could fish with a string or a knife. He could kill a gator with a knife or gun. He was one of the best hunters in the swamps. Few of the boys who knew him ever challenged him to a fight. His word was gold all over the swamp and bayous. He’d studied long and hard to be a doctor, a surgeon, one that could come home and be of great use here in the bayou. It wasn’t that he couldn’t have left – he hadn’t wanted to leave. There was a huge difference.

    He let out his breath again and scrubbed his hand down his face, wishing he could wipe his memories of his own damn foolishness away so easily.

    “Did you tell your grand-mere we were coming with you?” Ezekiel Fortunes, Malichai’s brother, asked softly. Too softly. His voice was almost a rolling purr in the night, like that of a cat waiting for prey.

    Wyatt glanced at the third man on the airboat, the man to his right. Ezekiel was an inch or so shorter than either of the other two, but he had the same roped muscles and solid build. His eyes, a strange amber color, glowed in the dark just as Wyatt’s and Malichai’s did. All three could see as easily at night as they could during the day, which gave them a decided advantage in night combat situations.

    “Nonny’s expecting all three of us,” Wyatt said. “And you two had better be on your best behavior. She’s good at grabbing ears and twisting if you get out of line.” He rubbed his ear, a little grin slowly finding its way to his mouth at the memory of quite a few of those ear-pulling incidents. “War wounds aren’ goin’ to save you.”

    “She’s a good cook?” Malichai asked. “Because I’m starving.”

    Wyatt and Ezekiel both laughed. “You’re always starving.”

    “We never get to eat. Someone’s always trying to kill us,” Malichai complained. He looked around him. “I’ll bet there’s good hunting here.”

    Wyatt nodded slowly. “We’re resting, boys. Resting and relaxing. Not hunting. These people are my neighbors. They’ll want to drink with you and fight with you, but you don’t get to kill them.”

    “You sure do know how to take the fun out of a party,” Ezekiel groused.

    Wyatt stepped off the airboat to the solid wooden pier. The last time he’d been home, he’d fixed the rotting boards and it was still in fine shape. He’d been afraid his grandmother would have tried to repair the dock in spite of her age and failing health. That would be just like her. It was the last thing he’d done for her before he’d left – in the dead of night – without a word. Skulking away like some sulking child just because he got his heart ripped out. No, because he thought he got his heart ripped out, which was infinitely worse.

    He just stood there another minute, reluctant to walk up to the house, knowing his grandmother would welcome him with open arms, and not one hint of censure, but he felt guilty. He kept trying to think of what to say to her. There were no words. None at all. She would know the moment she saw him, the moment she looked into his eyes and saw what he’d done, that he’d been changed for all time – just as his brother Raoul had been.

    “What is it, Wyatt?” Malichai asked again. His voice was pitched low and he used that same purring tone of the hunter Ezekiel had used.

    “She’ll know. Nonny. The minute she lays eyes on me, she’ll know what I am.”

    Ezekiel looked out over the bayou, avoiding his gaze.

    Malichai shook his head. “No, she won’t, Wyatt. She’ll know you’re different in some way, but she won’t know what you are.”

    “I left a doctor, a healer.” Wyatt looked down at his hands. “I came back a killer. You tell me how she isn’t going to know that.”

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