Imagine Jade Gone
Book 2 of Sweet Desire, Wicked Fate
Jaden sniffed the air. A pungent odor filled her nostrils. Once again, she felt a glass pressed against her lips and a stringy liquid slide into her mouth. She smiled drowsily. At first, she’d found the taste and texture revolting. Large hands had to physically restrain her to even get the foul solution into her mouth. She’d gagged repeatedly as it was forced down her throat. But now, she didn’t mind as the drink pulled her from her dreams of Professor Dekle Thatcher, the brilliant grandfather she’d never known, and of his genetically engineered creations, the Mal Rous.
Ahh, yes, more, she thought, swallowing the savory, delicious interruption.
People swore the Mal Rous were monsters, that the Professor had been deranged to create them. But Jaden understood his devotion to the Mal Rous. Especially the one called Datura. After all, Datura’s blood now ran through Jaden’s veins; they were partly kin.
A vision of Datura dying flitted through Jaden’s mind. Was that because of me? She thought of the other Mal Rous: Anders, Tig, Esere, and Ivan. Did I kill them all? She swallowed more of the thick liquid.
The glass emptied too soon. Jaden struggled to open her eyes as the coolness of the glass slid from her lips. She tried to speak, to demand more, but her mind dulled as unconsciousness stole her away.
This time, she dreamed her sister, Ava, was chasing her down a dim corridor lined with windows that framed the dark night beyond. Jaden looked back, then stumbled as Ava morphed into a creature with horns and fangs. Jaden moved to run again, then stopped. Glancing at her reflection in the window, she realized she had become a monster, too, deadlier than her sister. She turned and stared into Ava’s fiery eyes. Jaden’s eyes blazed hotter.
Confront the beasts that torment you. Then allow forgiveness to find its way. Unleashed from her mind, the words thundered down the hall, pushing against the walls and shattering the windows, the broken glass sparkling as it fused into rivulets of water. Jaden spread her arms and flew into the night. She looked down and saw Ava, no longer a monster, watching her.
Jaden’s eyes popped open; the dream withered away.
Perspiration seeped from Jaden’s skin. Blearily, she stood. Multiple hands pushed and pulled at her, forcing her back into bed. Voices tumbled around her, some badgering her to respond, others declaring she wasn’t in her right state of mind, vowing they’d find a way to help her.
Jaden snarled and lunged as nylon straps were tied to her wrists and ankles, then fastened to the frame of the bed. She thrashed, struggling to get free.
The badgering voices returned. This time, they cooed that Jaden would be all right, implored her to calm down. But Datura’s blood and the feral Mal Rou instincts within told her to trust no one. Soon she found another glass pressed to her mouth, followed by two more. The concoctions within tasted familiar, not as pungent as what she’d been given before, less stringy.
Her body felt heavy. Had she been drugged?
When Jaden dreamed again, she found herself soaring above the bayou, smiling, the tips of her fingers touching the tips of a crow’s wing. The cool air whispered of changes to come, promised that eventually the nightmare she’d been living would end.
“When?” she asked. Then a shrill voice called her name, and Jaden plummeted downward, knowing the nightmare lived on.
Surrounded by the early morning bayou, Jaden stood on the triplets’ porch. The large T-shirt that served as her nightshirt hung loosely over her slim body as she leaned back against her boyfriend Briz’s chest. Jaden felt she’d been transported to another world. A peaceful world. A sane world.
Briz’s arms wrapped around her, comforting her. Reaching up, she placed a hand on his arm. She squeezed gently, to confirm that he wasn’t an illusion—that she was alive. Jaden woke this morning after four days of drifting in and out of consciousness, unsure of what was real and what was not.
The sound of Hubs’s boat rumbled in the distance. She wasn’t ready for this moment of tranquility to end. She finally felt calm and wanted the feeling to last.
She needed time. Time to be with her family. Time to be with Briz. Time for all of them to heal.
Physically. Mentally. Emotionally.
Somehow, they had all eluded death. The horrifying version of her life that she had been living for the last few weeks was so close to being over that she could taste it.
Taste it…the words brought images of Datura and the other four Mal Rous to Jaden’s mind. No doubt, with Datura’s blood pumping through her veins, it was a trait of the mutant creatures that Jaden would have for the rest of her life: smelling and craving fear, tasting elation.
She touched the gauze taped over the wounds on her neck. Lowering her hand, she let it hover over the stitches in her stomach, wondering who had sewn her up. Jaden drew her slender fingers together, then flicked them open, wanting to magically erase the memory of her shock when Datura had stabbed her, of when she had jabbed the machete into Datura, killing the small Mal Rou to save Briz.
Jaden faced Briz, guiding his head toward hers until their lips met. For a moment, passion replaced her feelings of anxiety.
Hubs’s boat went silent.
Jaden turned toward the dock. A soft sigh passed from her lips as Briz kissed the top of her head. Resting his chin where his lips had just touched, the two of them watched Hubs come up the wood walkway to the house, nodding at them when he reached the porch.
Jaden was grateful for all the help Hubs had given her, her family, and Briz. If he hadn’t brought her here to the triplets’ house when Datura had first bitten her or brought her mom and sister after they’d been attacked, there was no telling where or what any of them would be now…probably fledging Mal Rous, mere shells of who they were when they’d first arrived at Belle Fleur. Or dead.
Hubs handed Briz a small package. His stutter was more pronounced than normal. “The f-fresh m-mushrooms f-from yer f-friend in W-Washington.” His eyes were full of compassion as he regarded Jaden. Then he looked back at Briz, the lines on his face holding back a question. Not uttering a word, Hubs opened the screen door, and like a phantom, he glided into the house.
Jaden looked over her shoulder at Briz. With a shrug, Briz guided her back against him. Her head resumed its place against his chest as he wrapped his arms around her.
She had forgotten all about the mushrooms. Which seemed impossible. As far as they knew, a formula made from them was the only thing that would kill the Mal Rous. How could she not remember they were going to boil the little mutants in it until their bodies dissolved—it was going to be an added precaution in case they could seed and sprout back to life.
Mal Rous. Jaden thought of the nickname her crazed grandfather, Professor Dekle Thatcher, had given his creations. Mal, Latin for bad, evil; Rous, a play on the word rougarou—a beast from Cajun folklore, part human, part animal. Their scientific name, Cerophagous Cautelosus. Cerophagous was Latin for flesh-eating; Cautelosus, for treacherous, cunning. She cringed, knowing their blood now ran through her veins.
With the soft squeak of the screen door, she felt Briz turn his head.
The scent of Olympe preceded the woman as she padded her way toward them. During the time Jaden had spent with the triplets, she had learned the obvious and not-so-obvious differences between the identical albino sisters.
Olympe’s scent was soft like a fading flower, motherly like fresh-baked cookies; the cadence of her speech was infused with the essence of the South. Her sister Isadora’s accent was lyrical, not as strong as Olympe’s; she smelled musky, rich as her vast book collection. While Tamara lacked warmth, she ran hot with a spicy scent and a biting tongue.
Jaden moved away from Briz to greet Olympe. The petite woman was wearing a blue bathrobe that was slightly darker than her pale blue eyes.
Olympe handed Jaden a large glass of her herbal brew. The mixture kept Jaden’s system balanced, kept her more human—less Mal Rou, less aggressive, less angry. “It’s yer original blend,” Olympe said with optimism, stressing the word original. “We added some spearmint, trying to improve the taste.”
“Thank you, Olympe. Thank you for everything.” Jaden’s voice was meek as she reached for the glass. She’d hoped to sound filled with lifelong gratitude; only her words came out like Olympe had just served her a cup of hot cocoa, not saved her and her family’s lives. Jaden raised the glass to her lips. “I really need to give this stuff a name.”
“How about Envie Tea?” Briz offered with a smile toward Jaden. Answering the question in her eyes, he spelled the word. “E-n-v-i-e. It’s pronounced ‘ahn-vee.’ In English it means envy. But envie is Cajun…or is it French?” He looked at Olympe for confirmation. “Anyway, the old timers in town say it when they have a craving for something.” This time Briz’s smile reached his eyes. “I was thinking it was a good name because you drink it to stop your cravings for me.”
Embarrassed, Jaden sipped the mixture, thinking, Envie Tea it is.
Briz and Olympe stood at her sides, reminding her of guardian angels—or perhaps, she mused, they were guards, not guardians. She wasn’t ready to face her family, and they knew it.
Olympe turned and went back into the house. As Jaden and Briz went up to the screen door, Jaden heard Olympe’s sweet voice greet Brooke and Ava.
“Oh, good morning. I hope I didn’t wake ya.”
The triplets’ living room was large and open. Normally, the sofa was placed in the middle of the room; it had been pushed closer to the entrance to make space for Brooke and Ava’s cots.
“So is Jade…finally.” Ava sat looking at Jaden through the screen door, with an expression that Jaden couldn’t read.
Concern? Confusion? Contempt?
Jaden could see that Ava’s foot was wrapped with gauze—more bad news. How was she going to ask for forgiveness? She had ruined everyone’s lives.
“Jaden, are you all right?” her mother asked.
Briz opened the door wide enough for Jaden to enter the house. It was clear he thought her moment of reckoning had arrived. It was time for her to face her jury.
Yep, guard, not guardian angel, Jaden thought. Briz’s eyes were no longer smiling at her; he motioned with his head, signaling Jaden to go inside.
Jaden wished she’d just pass out and fall onto the floor. She wondered if she could fake it. Delay the inevitable for a bit longer. Probably no one would think it was odd—just another reaction to Datura’s poisons in her blood.
She looked at her mother and Ava sitting on their cots. They didn’t appear to be as bruised and battered as the day they were attacked by Ivan and Tig.
“Sweetie, please.” Her mother’s weak, concerned voice beckoned her in.
Jaden sucked in a breath of air like a boat sputtering out of gas as she tried to suppress her tears. “I’m, I’m so sorry,” she mumbled. “Please forgive me for everything.” Shoving her empty glass into Briz’s hand, Jaden dashed off the porch into the yard.
Jaden expected someone to follow her, to escort her back to the house so they could have a nice long chat about genetic monsters over morning coffee. But no one came.
The ground was moist, soft under her feet. Keeping an eye out for snakes, Jaden went around the corner to the triplets’ first home on the property—now it was where they created their brews, though the place was nothing more than a shack. The weathered gray structure leaned to one side, ready to collapse. Pieces of screen were nailed haphazardly over the termite-eaten walls; crooked door hinges were attached with wire.
Jaden looked through a grimy window. The rotting floorboards had been replaced with bricks. Two cauldrons sat on a stone fire pit. Above them, the ceiling had a vent for smoke to escape.
The sisters weren’t into Voodoo as far as Jaden knew; maybe her grandfather Dekle had been right when he’d written in his journals that the triplets seemed to be a little Wiccan. Jaden could imagine them at night, dancing outdoors, whistling to stir the wind, drawing down the moonlight, conjuring up spells.
A whisper of stuttering words drew her away from the window. Jaden peeked around the corner of the shack.
She could see Hubs on the porch talking with Olympe, a blue housedress having replaced her blue bathrobe. The two of them went back into the house. The sound of chatter swelled, then subsided, and swelled again. Everyone’s words were muffled, though Jaden recognized the irritated cadence of her sister’s voice.
With her jaw set, Jaden shook her arms like a prizefighter preparing for a match. She took a step toward the porch, but immediately changed her direction and went around to the back of the house.
Jaden looked out across the yard. It had no ending or beginning. She understood why the triplets had purchased this land; it was one of the highest patches of ground for miles and wouldn’t flood every spring.
Jaden jumped as Briz’s hands embraced the sides of her waist. She hadn’t smelled his pheromones or sensed him walking up behind her. She smiled. Maybe she was less Mal Rou than she’d thought.
She could feel Briz’s breath on her hair as he murmured, “Come on babe, everyone’s waiting.”
The clouds released a drizzle of rain on them as Briz placed a hand on her shoulder, encouraging her to return with him. Jaden wanted to go anywhere except back to the house. She pulled free of his touch.
“Jade…you have to do this.” Jaden’s muscles tightened at the sound of Briz’s now firm voice. “Look, I’ve been here every step of the way for you. I’m…I’m not bailing on you now, but your family wants to talk with you. They’ve had a tough time, Jade. We all have.”
He was right. With all they’d been through, he’d always been there for her…always. Her shoulders dropped as she exhaled.
Briz continued with his unsympathetic tone, “The other day, when your family came to, we told them everything. Well, almost everything.”
Jaden wondered what Briz and the triplets hadn’t explained to her mom and sister. Did they tell them how, if she didn’t drink her Envie Tea, that she’d be aggressive, violent, lustful? She remembered the way Hubs had looked at her. Briz was leaving something out.
“And me?” Jaden turned to face him. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Briz looked past her, the sounds of the bayou ticking off the seconds.
“Yeah, well…” Briz’s gentle voice was back—but it wasn’t comforting. “I guess now’s as good a time as any.” Jaden lowered her eyes and stared at Briz’s T-shirt. “When Hubs brought all of us here, the triplets plied you with bottles of that improved drink they’d made for you, to balance your system,” Briz said with light sarcasm. “At first, they had to force you to drink it. Then you started crying out for more, like you were addicted to it. Isadora went into the kitchen to get you another glass. She was only gone for a moment.”
Briz’s words were guarded, as if he was unsure of how much to share. “When she returned…you,” he exhaled, taking Jaden’s hand in his, “you had a pillow over your sister’s face. You were trying to suffocate her.”
Jaden’s heart stalled, then spasmed as it labored to beat again.
“Ava wasn’t aware of what was going on,” Briz added in a pathetically reassuring voice. “She was still full of Tig’s poisons.”
Jaden could barely speak. “I, I’d never do that.”
“No, you wouldn’t.” Briz’s words swelled with sympathy. “But…Datura would.”
“You mean Datura was here? She’s alive? I thought I’d dreamt it.”
“No, Datura wasn’t here.” Briz squeezed Jaden’s hand. “Jade, you have her blood. She’s…” Briz didn’t finish his sentence.
Jaden felt nauseated; she knew exactly what he was going to say. After all, Datura had pumped more of her blood into Jaden. She pulled away from Briz.
“What are you even doing here? I’m more like Datura now…like the Mal Rous, with heightened senses and the need to harm others. Get away from me while you can! Before I try to murder you, too!”
“It wasn’t you, Jade.” Briz drew her into his arms as he whispered in her ear, “It was the drink.”
“You’re wrong!” Jaden stepped back. “You should leave. Go back to town,” Jaden demanded, clenching her fists. “I don’t want to see you anymore.”
“Jade, you saved my life.” Briz’s tone wavered between annoyance and sympathy. “If it weren’t for you, I’d be dead in that crate in your grandfather’s cellar.”
“Get real!” Jaden glared at Briz. “If it weren’t for me, you never would have been in that crate. You never would have been captured by the Mal Rous.”
“I’m not leaving you!” Briz reached for her. “You’re still my Jade.”