LAW OF THE WILD

Third in the DeLande Saga - by Gwen Hunter


Prologue

Mara was born into a race of slaves.
    After all this time, after all she had seen and begun to understand, she could finally admit that simple and salient fact. In the modern-day world, this world of personal freedom and privilege, DVDs and satellite dishes, war by push-button and remote control, she was a throwback to another time—bred for the use of a man, as were all the women of her Louisiana clan.
    She was born a LeMay. A breed apart from the rest of the world, different in mind and body, emotions and spirit, conceived from the genes up to be shackled, owned. Chattel to the DeLandes.
    The Eldest DeLande of New Orleans had a strange power over the LeMays, an enchantment that bordered on wizardry. To the women of the LeMay clan, the DeLande males were a fascination, an enticement, a beguilement that could not be refused, though legend had it some had tried over the centuries. The DeLandes ruled them, owned them, possessed them. In the eyes of a DeLande Eldest, the LeMays were their entitlement. An inheritance. A birthright. The family ties lay intertwined for centuries.
    Mara had seen it herself as a child—had seen the way they could captivate and entrance—and she had seen what was left when that power was broken. She had watched her mother for years as Rosemon waited for her man, her DeLande protector, to call for her. Watched as she wasted away, growing pale and lifeless, drab and passive. Watched as she came alive when she finally heard his call, changing from submissive and unresisting, to passionate and fiery in the space of a heartbeat.
    Mara watched her mother the night her man died.
    He was Andreu, called the Eldest, a title of power and respect among the DeLande Clan, that strange and powerful family who had ruled Louisiana for centuries. Mara knew him as the green-eyed master of her mother's sensual enslavement. The father of her half-brothers and sisters. A man of secrets and prestige, holding the power of life and death, joy and misery, passion and indifference, all in the palm of his hand. He could destroy with a word. Comfort with a glance.
    The night he died, Rosemon had been lying supine, her head thrown back, her eyes glazed, skin flushed with passion, in thrall to him, though he was miles away and perhaps not even aware of her at all. In some bizarre manner Mara had never understood—never would understand—Rosemon was linked to him and lost to her children.
    It was late, cold, and wet in this land that was never dry, this land of bayou and swamp, miasmic gasses and cypress, predator and prey. Fog wisped in through the windows, pale tendrils touching Rosemon's skin as she locked on to Andreu, communing and captivated. Sharing his life as she had been bred to do. And Mara watched, curled in a corner, gnawing her lip, jealous and frightened as always.
    And then Rosemon screamed, threw back her head, the tendons in her throat stretched taut. Screamed as if she were dying and faced a hell unimaginable. Clawing her throat and chest in blood-red welts, she crawled, crab-like, on to the floor. Cowered in the far corner. Hidden, Rosemon whimpered, eyes wide and staring, mouth open, as her throat bled from the violence of her own nails. And then the seizures started.
    She had been nearly catatonic ever since. Silent. Staring. Compliant.
Mara hated her for her little death. But she hated the DeLandes more.
    We are DeLande by blood but not by name. That was the maxim by which LeMays lived. It had been a way of life for over two hundred years. A life of freedom and safety in the wilds of the Badlands of Louisiana and Texas.
    LeMays were DeLande only by bloodlines, not by marriage, not by custom, and never by mores. LeMays were free from DeLande dominance, free to live as they chose in swamp and bayou.
    The DeLande Eldest guaranteed that independence, and at least one LeMay woman in each generation secured that freedom with her body. In the last generation that woman had been Rosemon, Mara's mother. In this generation that woman was to be Mara. Unless Momo set her free.
    Mara hated it, this life of slavery promised to her. And she would fight it with the last drop of life in her body. Yet, though she could admit it to no one—not even Momo—Mara had lived all her young life in terror that she would one day meet a DeLande and lose herself to him as her mother had lost herself to Andreu. And a worse fear . . . that she would no longer care.


Chapter One
The Badlands—A Trap

She tossed her hair back over her shoulder, irritated that it was no longer in its braid. It was too long, too straight, too black, and some day she would disobey Momo and hack it off with a skinning knife. Would cut it short, above her ears, boy-style.
    Momo would shriek and wail and proclaim disaster over Mara's life and future, her shrill voice sounding like wildcats mating on high ground. She would wring her hands and cry to her saints, and big tears would run down her face like rain down cracked window glass. She would make a fuss because the day Mara cut her hair, she would be free. That day, she would be grown.
    Twisting up her skirt, Mara pulled the fabric through her legs, tucking the hem into her waistband, creating makeshift short, baggy trousers, exposing her legs. Balancing her cane pole on a stump, she freed both hands to re-braid her hair, and tied it off with a length of twine pulled from her pocket.
    Unencumbered, she waded deeper into the bayou, mud to her ankles, water to mid-thigh, and untangled the fishing line from the brambles collected there. Perch and catfish were attracted to the brambles to feed and lay eggs. Mara had seen a three-footer in the shallow water just yesterday at sundown, and was determined to hook him.
    Yesterday, he swam past in lazy superiority, flaunting himself. Today, it was if he could read her mind. As if he knew her intent to catch him, skin him, and serve him up crisp and fried golden brown, to Momo for dinner. He stayed hidden.
    She was using the pole just to occupy her hands and mind, the real work done by the trot-line—the catfish line—she had strung over the bayou. Eighty feet of number 18 nylon twine was tied off to a sapling on either bank. It was sturdy cord, 165-pound test-line, just in case she caught more than one monster fish. Mara had tied ten loops in the twine at various distances, and dropped 18-inch stringers from each. On two, she had tied weights, short lengths of cast iron pipe buried in the muddy bottom, keeping the trot-line in its proper place. The other stringers were hooked with 3/0 Eagle Claw hooks, and baited with worms or crickets or a slice of Momo's whole-hog sausage, all treats for even the most finicky catfish.
    If she caught the granddaddy catfish, it would likely be on the trot-line, not the single hook caught in the brambles beneath the dark water. Statistically speaking, the trot-line was her best bet for success. But it was so boring.
    Freeing her line, Mara clambered back up the muddy bank, settling herself on the rounded stump of the huge oak at her back to re-bait the hook. It was sundown, finally, blue herons soaring past to roost nearby, gators slapping the water as they slithered off the banks to hunt, mosquitoes swarming up from some watery hell to feast on her blood, a breeze from the gulf blowing in damp and almost cool, and the sky turning a vicious red that bled into the water like a great wound. It was her favorite time of day.
    Tossing a wriggling worm back into the water, its body threaded with the fish hook, she smeared insect repellent on to her skin and waited for her supper to bite. The world darkened around her and daylight died. Bullfrogs sang a basso harmony. A cat screamed in the distance, sounding like a woman in agony. Bats flitted and dived after insects. Mara narrowed her eyes, watching warily. She didn't like bats. Ugly things. Rats that could fly. Careful to monitor their movements, she rested her head back against the bark.
    Behind her, a twig snapped, the sound sharp and clean.
    It is never silent on the bayou; the sounds of wildlife are a constant accompaniment. Mammals and insects, reptiles and amphibians, birds and fish, all intent on their next meal, carry death up the food chain making a mutable hum of background noise, a varying clamor. Even the plants contribute to the insistent cacophony as wind rustles leaves and dead branches break off and fall. A thousand sounds she knew by heart and scarcely even heard.
    But this one was different. Mara held her breath, listening.
Twigs that break off, tend to fall and land in underbrush or water, settling with a tiny susurration of sound. Twigs that are stepped on, don't.
    Moving slowly, she slid her hand along the root stump where she sat, and found her gun, its worn butt sliding into her hand as if it had missed her touch. She rested the bamboo rod on the aged wood.
    With a single motion, she dropped to her belly. Rolled. Extended her arms. Bracing her body, she scanned the low foliage.
    There were three of them that she could see, dark shadows widely spaced among the tree trunks. Moving, crouched, man-sized.
    They hadn't seen her yet, but they had seen her airboat, Jenny's tall fan-cage painted in the yellow and black tail bands of a Japanese hornet, the powerful engine cool to the touch. They knew she was here. They knew who she was.
    And Mara knew what they wanted. Shock, like a jolt of icy water, drenched through her. She knew what they wanted. She knew. A flush, hot and burning, steamed through the sensation of cold. She shouldn't know anything. She should simply be afraid.
    A crow cawed in the distance. Bat wings whisked by her head. Not thinking, Mara aimed the Colt. Squeezing gently, she pulled off a single round, shattering the music of the bayou. She could hear his scream over the roar of the shot. He dropped, a bullet in his thigh. She could feel his fury. His pain. His fear. Her heart twisted and thundered in her chest.
    The one on the left had seen the muzzle flash. A Colt 9mm makes a cannon flash in dim light. He ducked behind the wide, twisted bole of a leafless chenier and emerged a moment later in a different place, carrying a shotgun.
    Mara had lost the one on the right. Not good. The bayou was to the left. The one with the shotgun had nowhere to go. The one on the right had plenty of room to maneuver.
    Rolling again, she came up beside the old tree where she was protected on all sides, by the tree in front, by the bayou behind. Her heart hammered, her breath came too fast. Too loud. Louder than the sounds of the men. Again, she aimed and fired, this time taking her target in the abdomen, low on the left.
    His scream of pain was more than an auditory reflex. She heard it reverberate through the swamp and through her mind as well, a psychic impulse that left her shaken. She had hurt him badly. She knew it. She knew.
    Mara clutched the tree. Blinded. And then, suddenly, she felt them move away. She didn't see them leave. She never left the safety of the tree that was both her protection and obstruction. She just felt them leave, her eyes wide in the falling darkness.
    The one on the right was HoBoy, and he just followed orders. The one she shot through the thigh was DeMarc. And the one seriously injured was her cousin, Tether. He was one of her clan. And he was a traitor.

*  *  *

Heavy silver clinked against fine china as footmen moved with choreographed precision down the long table, removing the roti settings from the guests. Priceless Limoges china, smeared with the greasy remains of quail and stacked with small bones like piles of twigs, vanished, exposing fine linen beneath. Elegant conversation was exchanged to either side. Discreet laughter whispered the length of the room.
    The setting sun cast fiery shadows across the long table as coffee was poured and a trolley laden with confections rolled down both sides for the guests to chose between a half dozen luscious desserts. There were local politicians, a former Texas governor, her hair in a bee-hive, three bankers, one from Tokyo, two from Germany, an artist, a drunken writer, and the winner of this year's British Open. And, of course, there was family, moving elegantly among them, guiding conversation, eliciting information, titillating and seducing. Always seducing. After all, these were DeLandes at their best.
    Miles watched it all with hooded eyes, the guests to either side of him forgotten for the moment, his mind blank, his quiet anger carefully shielded as he watched a red-haired cousin cajole a smile out of the man across from her. Further down, a red-headed second cousin flirted with the woman to his side. Beautiful, each and every one of the DeLandes. Utterly and completely beautiful. And most of them were broken or depraved within, thanks to the lifestyle that came with the looks and the grace and the very name itself. Miles frowned slightly, distracted.
    The butler appeared at the head of the table, his mien stiff, haughty, and affectionate all at once. He bowed behind the host's chair and whispered in Miles' ear, "The Grande Dame has suffered another attack, just an hour ago, sir. I have taken the liberty of having her physician summoned, and upon his orders, have administered a dose of Haldol. Any other orders, Mr. DeLande?"
    "Yes, Jenkins. Ready the Cessna," he said, speaking of the twin-engine aircraft in the hanger at the back of the estate, "and pack me a bag. Jeans, boots, survival gear."
    Jenkins lifted a brow in that supercilious manner that had held sway over the estate for two decades. It was his only indication of surprise. "Destination, sir?"
    Miles grinned finally, black eyes like sooty torches, throwing back the light. "Don't know yet," he said. "Somewhere in the Badlands. I think the Grande Dame's attack was the result of an injury to one of us."
    "You found another, sir?"
    "I think so. I couldn't pinpoint the location, but I have a general idea of the territory."
    "Very good, sir. And I'll have Cleo reschedule your appointments for the rest of the week."
    "Thanks, Jenks."
    "My pleasure, sir. My pleasure."
    Miles turned his attention back to the crowd before him. His sister Angelique was laughing into the eyes of Raul Gastineau, an artist from the South of France. Gastineau was the art world's newest sensation. His medium was construction paper cut into tiny triangles and pasted on artist's board, or some such nonsense.
    Angelique, scarlet hair seeming to burn in the crimson light of sunset, bent forward, her low-cut dress gaping, revealing far too much to be merely accidental. Angelique had always been attracted to the artistic type and Miles could hear the warm purr of her voice as she put her hand on Gastineau's arm. Her laughter melted away, eyes grew wide, lips parted. Raul's eyes rested on them, fascinated. Snared by the art of seduction perfected.
    She was good at it, Miles' sister, practiced at seduction and temptation, the destruction of marriages and of good men. She considered it her calling, as others are called to the ministry, or to the mission field, or to some selfless occupation. She went about it with the dedication of the true believer, leaving heartache and misery in the wake of dozens of affairs.
    If the devil ever advertised for a female lieutenant whose specialty was to lure the tempted but undecided, Angelique would snap up the job in a heartbeat. She had even made an attempt or two on Miles himself in the last year, appearing in his suite in the middle of the night, naked and inviting. The ties of blood between them had been only an added attraction, from her point of view.
    Until he became Eldest, incest had been a DeLande family tradition, a custom going back for centuries. Some Eldests had insisted upon the practice, mating brother to sister, parent to child. During kinder times, the ritual matings had been optional rather than obligatory. Throughout the reign of the Grande Dame such matings had been forced. Angelique believed they should be again. Miles wanted the matings abolished.
    Miles watched his sister preen, a sheen of sweat and imported oils glistening on her skin. Her pulse beat like the heart of a trapped bird as she slid her palm along the artist's thigh.
    Down the table, Gastineau's wife watched the little tableau of Angelique and her husband in the prelude of passion. Her face was furious and embarrassed all at once. Angelique cast slanted eyes at the wife and smiled her triumph.
    Miles sighed. He would have to do something about his sister. And soon.

Excerpt from the book LAW OF THE WILD by Gwen Hunter
2005 Gwen Hunter

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