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Authors: Crista Mchugh

The Alchemy of Desire

BOOK: The Alchemy of Desire
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Alchemy of Desire

By Crista McHugh

After winning the Civil War against the Confederate Wielders, the Union Machinists have outlawed magic to usher in a new age of steam-powered technology. Diah, an alchemist and the only non-wielder in his family, owes his brother for saving his life in the war; so when Cager is blackmailed into procuring the magical hide of the White Buffalo, Diah accompanies him to the Dakota territory.

Their guide is Oni, a half-Lakota woman with plenty of secrets to hide. She’s a magic wielder with an illegal wand concealed in her knife—and she’s a coyote shifter. To her people, killing the White Buffalo is not only sacrilege, it’s dangerous. Oni has no intention of helping them actually achieve their mission—until she falls in love with Diah…

83,340 words

Dear Reader,

A new year always brings with it a sense of expectation and promise (and maybe a vague sense of guilt). Expectation because we don’t know what the year will bring exactly, but promise because we always hope it will be good things. The guilt is due to all of the New Year’s resolutions we make with such good intentions.

This year, Carina Press is making a New Year’s resolution we know we won’t have any reason to feel guilty about: we’re going to bring our readers a year of fantastic editorial and diverse genre content. So far, our plans for 2011 include staff and author appearances at reader-focused conferences such as the RT Booklovers Convention in April, where we’ll be offering up goodies, appearing on panels, giving workshops and hosting a few fun activities for readers. We’re also cooking up several genre-specific release weeks, during which we’ll highlight individual genres. So far we have plans for steampunk week and unusual fantasy week. Readers will have access to free reads, discounts, contests and more as part of our week-long promotions!

But even when we’re not doing special promotions, we’re still offering something special to our readers in the form of the stories authors are delivering to Carina Press that we’re passing on to you. From sweet romance to sexy, and military science fiction to fairy-tale fantasy, from mysteries to romantic suspense, we’re proud to be offering a wide variety of genres and tales of escapism to our customers in this new year. Every week is a new adventure, and we want to bring our readers along on the journey. Be daring, be brave and try something new with Carina Press in 2011!

We love to hear from readers, and you can email us your thoughts, comments and questions to [email protected]. You can also interact with Carina Press staff and authors on our blog, Twitter stream and Facebook fan page.

Happy reading!

~Angela James

Executive Editor, Carina Press

www.carinapress.com

www.twitter.com/carinapress

www.facebook.com/carinapress

Dedication

To all those who pushed the boundaries of what’s considered acceptable in order to achieve tolerance.

Acknowledgements

To my husband, who allowed me to hide in my basement office during NaNo 2008 to write this novel.

To my editor, Deb, who saw something good in the story and helped me make it shine.

And to my beta readers who helped me rework this novel into something better.

Chapter One

New Orleans
Late August, 1872

“Uh-oh,” the cab driver muttered. “You’d better stay inside for a moment, mister, until Monsieur Lamont’s boys are finished.”

Diah Reynolds shuffled his packages of alchemical supplies and peeked out the window.
This visit just got far more interesting.
Outside his brother’s Garden District home, two men wrestled with a third, taking care to avoid the dim gaslights and keep their identities bathed in shadows. “Should we break it up?”

The driver shook his head. “You can if you want. Me, I prefer to keep my toes from being turned into gator bait.”

Before Diah jumped out to assist, the scuffle moved toward a waiting steam carriage, and the light flashed on the face of the man dragged they dragged inside. Diah’s gut clenched. It was Cager. As soon as the door closed, red smoke belched from the boiler, and the horseless carriage sped off toward the French Quarter.

Jean-Baptiste Lamont, the self-proclaimed King of New Orleans, ran the city like a tyrant. If anyone crossed him, they were usually found floating facedown in a bayou the next morning. What worried him more was how Cager knew Lamont.

“Follow them.”

“Are you crazy, mister? Ol’ Sal here can’t keep up with one of them steam carriages.”

“Do your best. That’s my brother they’re taking.”

The horse’s hooves clopped down the smoke-filled streets, their pace matching Diah’s own galloping pulse. He reached into his pocket and wrapped his hand around the vial of black fire inside. If worst came to worst, he could use that to free his brother.

As they came closer to the river, a dense fog rolled in and mixed with the soot and steam to cover the French Quarter in a thick blanket. When the Machinists won the war, they’d promised to usher in a new age of steam-powered technology. They kept their promise, but at a cost. The air now seemed choked from the hundreds of coal fires that fueled the cities. Only the very rich could afford the clean-burning murcarbonite, a rare ore discovered during the war that held more than twenty times the heat energy of coal.

Diah covered his mouth with a handkerchief to keep from coughing on the foul air as he leaned out the window to follow the taxi with his brother inside. The pedestrians in the narrow streets behind St. Louis Cathedral flattened themselves against the buildings covered with iron lace to keep from getting run over by Lamont’s carriage. At last it came to a stop, and the three men exited it.

The driver pulled on the reins of his horse. “That’s Monsieur Lamont’s club, mister. The good news is that your brother walked into it instead of being carried.”

“If there’s anything good to be said about this situation.” Diah climbed out of the cab and fished a few dollars from his pocket. “Drop the packages off with the servants at my brother’s house.”

The driver’s grin widened when he counted the bills and calculated the generous tip Diah had given him. “Yes, sir. Good luck in there. You got more nerve than half this city.”

Leave it to Cager to get us both into trouble
. Diah shoved past the doorman and crossed the room in long strides, determined to retrieve his brother from the room he’d seen him disappear into as quickly as possible. The cloying scent of perfume hung so heavily in the air, it almost choked him. Mounds of café au lait cleavage overflowed from the silk-and-lace corsets the octoroon courtesans wore as they paraded around the room. But as soon as his hand touched the doorknob, a blade pressed between his ribs.

He pulled his hand back and craned his neck to look at the brute standing behind him. At a few inches over six feet, Diah towered over most men, but this lout weighed a good hundred pounds more than he did, and he doubted most of it was fat.

“I just need to tell my brother something.”

The brute smiled, revealing two rows of tobacco-stained teeth. The gaslights flickered off the smooth steel of his knife. With a click, a jagged-edged blade replaced it. He reached around and opened the door, shoving Diah into the small parlor.

For being caught in the den of one of the most notorious crime bosses in the country, Cager appeared to be relaxing over a glass of cognac with an old friend. Every strand of his dark brown hair was combed into place, framing a smile the ladies never seemed to get enough of. His immaculately tailored suit looked like it cost more money than Diah saw in an entire year. Only the white tips of his fingers revealed his edginess. He set his glass down and rose to his feet. “Diah, what the hell are you doing here?”

“You know this man, Monsieur Reynolds?” Lamont asked in his nasal Cajun twang. He was a wisp of man with black hair lacquered to his skull, someone who obviously liked his pomade too much.

Diah sucked a breath in through his teeth as the brute nudged him forward with the sinister knife.

A muscle rippled along Cager’s jaw, and the downward angle of his mouth almost made him look apologetic. “He’s my brother.”

“Votre frère?”
Lamont’s gaze traveled the length of Diah. “
Impossible.
He barely resembles you.”

A truthful assessment. Cager was dark and fine-featured, whereas Diah was a ginger, through and through. The only things he shared with his brother were the dimple in his chin and the same dark blue eyes. Most people found it difficult to believe they were even related.

“As much as I hate to break up your little meeting, my brother and I have dinner reservations at Antoine’s, and I don’t think my stomach can bear waiting much longer. If you’ll please excuse us, we’ll be one our way now.” Diah tried to leave, but the crushing pain in his shoulder made him reconsider that decision. Somehow, he’d gone from being his brother’s rescuer to needing to be rescued himself.

The Cajun chuckled. “Ah, I can see the resemblance now. He has your wit, Monsieur Reynolds.” He nodded, and the brute released him. “I would be honored if you would join us.”

Diah’s eyes darted between their captors and he inched his hand closer to his pocket. Perhaps the vial of black fire would provide a large enough explosion to allow them to escape.

“Monsieur Reynolds, perhaps you should advise your brother to keep his hands in front of him if he wants to leave this room alive.” A reed-thin wand made of pure orichalcum dangled from the Cajun’s fingers like a long bronze needle. A daring show of power, especially considering such wands had been outlawed since the war ended. Only about two dozen Wielders in the country had been given special licenses to carry wands, and they were under constant surveillance by the government. Being caught with an unlicensed wand carried a death sentence, but Lamont was the type who wouldn’t let a few laws stand in his way. He didn’t even bother to disguise his wand as a practical object.

After a nod from his brother, Diah raised his hands and prayed he could move quickly if given the opportunity. He took the chair next to Cager, his heart beating way too fast for his liking.

Lamont continued to twirl his wand between his fingers. “We were just discussing your brother’s acquisitions business.”

Diah snorted. Smuggling, bounty hunting, recovering lost treasure and bedding women would all be more accurate descriptions of how Cager spent his days. He’d been wild before the war, and he’d only worsened after it.

A knowing smile settled over Lamont’s thin lips. “Your reputation is quite impressive.”

Diah suppressed the groan that rose in his throat. Perhaps he should’ve just left his brother to his own devices. Then he could feign ignorance when their mother asked what happened in New Orleans.

Cager shrugged. “Be good or be good at it.”

Lamont laughed again and slapped this thigh. “Exactly. And you are good at what you do.” His dark eyes turned to Diah. “
Votre frère,
is he in the same business?”

“I’m an alchemist.”

The heavy lids lifted, revealing the whites above the nearly black irises. “A non-Wielder? But you are brothers.” He took another sip of the cognac. “I’m sure it must have been an interesting situation for your family during the war.”

Interesting was an understatement. As the only non-Wielder in his family, Diah had run away at the age of seventeen to join the Union army. The sight of their steam-powered machines awed him almost as much as his desire to throw off the yoke of oppression the Wielders had held over non-Wielders for centuries. He wanted to show his father he was more than just a disappointment to be hidden away in an alchemy lab. But before the war even ended, he’d found himself back home in Vicksburg, giving up his dreams and stepping into his father’s shoes as head of the household.

Cager shrugged again, continuing to appear cool and aloof through the interrogation. “The war is over now, so it’s not an issue.”


C’est vrai.
But this must explain your behavior at Chickamauga.”

“Like I said, the war is over. Our side lost.”

The brute tensed at the tone in Cager’s voice and stroked the handle of his knife. What other instruments of torture lay hidden inside it, ready to be retrieved with a click? Diah relaxed only when Lamont waved the guy off.

The Cajun’s beady eyes inspected Diah from head to toe. “I may have need of a good alchemist.”

Diah could only imagine what sordid deeds he needed an alchemist for, especially if Lamont happened to discover that he could make black fire.

“Leave Diah out of this.” Cager’s voice grew stony. He rested his elbows on his knees, steepling his fingers toward Lamont, and leaned closer. “You have a job for me, not him. That is why you sought me out,
n’est-ce pas?

Lamont turned his attention back to his brother. “Is it true you recovered one of Joseph Smith’s golden tablets?”

Cager hardly moved a muscle. “As you said, my reputation has reached even you.”

Lamont swirled the remaining cognac in his glass. “But of course. Why do you think I sought you out? When I heard you were in town, I could not believe my luck. I have a job I think you’ll be interested in pursuing. In fact, I believe you’re the only one capable of carrying it out, and I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Why don’t you let my brother go so we can work out the details?”

“You and I, we have a little bit of a history. Consider it reassurance that you will not abandon your task again.”

Diah’s jaw tightened. He definitely wanted answers if they came out of this alive.

A blank expression settled over Cager’s features. “I’m listening.”

“Have you heard of the White Buffalo?”

Cager slumped back in his seat. “It’s nothing more than a Sioux legend told to deceive trappers. No one’s ever seen it.”


Au contraire.
I have heard tales of it from the trappers over the years, as did
mon grand-père
before me. It appears every so often, after a certain amount of time has passed and the moon is in a specific alignment with the stars. If my calculations are correct, it will make an appearance sometime next month. All I want is its hide.”

“That doesn’t give me much time to get up to the Dakota Territories and hunt for it. Why don’t you send one of your own boys to go find it?”

“I need them here. Besides,” Lamont said, narrowing his eyes, “you owe me a favor.”

A chill rippled down Diah’s spine. This was more than just a simple job. This almost sounded like revenge.

“And what if I decline?” Cager arched one brow.


Votre mère et soeur,
they live in Vicksburg still?”

Diah jumped to his feet and took a step toward him. “You stay the hell away from them, you greasy little coon-ass!”

His brother grabbed his arm and yanked him back down. “Goddamn it, Diah, don’t make this any worse than it already is.” Cager ran his fingers through his dark hair the same way Diah did when he was uncomfortable. “And what about the part of the legend that says killing the White Buffalo curses you?”

Lamont replied with an indifferent wave of his hand. “As you said, it is just a legend. But just to be safe, that’s why I’m sending you.”

“You’re one sick son of a bitch, Jean-Baptiste.”

Their host flashed his pearly-white teeth. “I’m called the King of New Orleans for a reason.”

Cager stood and paced the room, a frown etched in his face. Yep, they were definitely in trouble once again. “It won’t be easy to get it. You said you would make it worth my while.”

“How does ten thousand dollars sound?”

Even Diah’s eyes widened at the amount. If he had just a portion of that, he could fix the leaking roof back home and make sure his mother and sister were well taken care of for many years. Maybe even invest in one of the new steam-powered cotton gins and balers. It was tempting enough to go to Dakota by himself and hunt for this mythical beast.

“You must want that hide pretty bad,” Cager continued after a second’s pause. “Why?”

“That is my own business. All you need to know is that I want it.” Lamont’s hooded eyes followed Cager as he continued to walk back and forth in front of the table. “Perhaps I should give you a reason to complete this job in a timely manner.
Votre soeur,
she is eighteen,
n’est-ce pas?
I wonder how she would like working in one of my establishments?”

Diah’s fingers itched to grab the vial and toss it right in the middle of Jean-Baptiste’s face, but a sharp look from his brother stopped him. He flexed the cramps out of his finger. “That won’t be necessary,” he growled. “We’ll get you that goddamned hide.”

Cager stared at him with his jaw lax. For once, Diah had managed to render his brother speechless.

“Excellent. That wasn’t too difficult, was it? And you will have your brother to help you, even if he can’t wield magic.” Lamont stood and stowed his wand in his jacket. “I would like the hide before the winter solstice. Now if you will excuse me,
messieurs,
I have business I need to attend to.”

Before following Lamont out, the lout scowled at them. The gaslight reflected off his knife in an unspoken threat.

As soon as the door closed behind them, Cager collapsed into his chair. “Shit! I’m sorry you got pulled into that.”

BOOK: The Alchemy of Desire
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