Out of Body
(The first book in the Court of Angels series)
Stella Cameron

For Philip and Lynn Lloyd-Worth and Zara West

Prologue

If ever a man had suffered for marrying the wrong woman, it was Jude Millet.

For three hundred years.

In the attic above J. Clive Millet, the French Quarter antique shop his family had owned since their flight first from Belgium, and then London—Jude listened appreciatively to the crack of early summer lightning, the rumble of thunder, and watched flashes of white light pierce the gloom in his cluttered bower.

Three hundred years.

He raised one corner of his mouth. Time flew when one was having fun, wasn’t that a saying he’d overheard when he broke his own rule and listened in on a conversation among those living in the here and now?

His poor descendants had suffered as a result of his birth and subsequent poor choices. Or one choice in particular: That wife of his.

The Millet family, an old and respected one, started their difficult journey from favor in Belgium, early in the eighteenth century.

Red-haired and green-eyed, without exception—almost—they were seen as close-knit and eccentric, but they were respected. Dealers in fine art of all varieties, they were sought after in Bruges society, even though they rarely accepted invitations to balls, soirees or other crowded, smelly gatherings they considered boring.

Then “The Event” occurred in the form of a robust, dark-haired, blue-eyed infant Millet, a male, and there was consternation.

They called the child Jude. And from time to time, a Millet has remarked on how similar the name Jude is to Judas.

Males in the family had forever chosen red-haired, green-eyed mates and, possibly through something a little beyond understanding, all subsequent males and females also had red-haired, green-eyed children.

And all went well.

Until the arrival of that dark-haired boy, Jude, that boy they at first suspected must be a changeling, an infant who didn’t belong to them at all. He was no changeling, but the Millets were eternally changed by his birth.

The child grew to manhood, a tall, dark, flamboyant force filled with the other, more important element that made the family different: they all had paranormal talents, some even magical.

There was no end to their mystical potential.

The dark-haired one eventually married a beguiling woman whose true nature he could not know until it was too late and, together with the rest of his kin, he was forced to flee to London. They barely eluded those who suspected Jude’s wife of causing bizarre deaths; the citizens of first Bruges, then London, wanted to punish the Millets for “witchcraft.”

That wife disappeared, but not soon enough to save her family by marriage from rejection and flight.

The Mentor, as Jude Millet became known by his descendants, moved to New Orleans in search of a way to combat the damage done by his ill-chosen wife and her kind. He considered her acts dark and hoped to find answers where dark arts are practiced.

He had discovered a great deal, but no ultimate answers.

Tonight Jude was far from peaceful. He could feel unrest seething on the lower floors of the Millet’s Royal Street shop. Not surprising since a new crisis had already begun to unfold. At last he would be called upon to guide, in secret, his twenty-first-century relatives. They were a feisty lot, exactly as he would wish them to be.

So many years had passed without incident since he and the others first arrived in New Orleans that he had come to hope they were out of all danger.

Now he knew how wrong he had been.

Jude moved from his place among the shadows and approached the veil through which he must pass to be present in the world of the living. He had always known there could be those events that would require him, within the bounds of the Millet Code, to become active again.

Like now.

After his release from life, followed by ages of observing and occasionally flying into a rage over decisions he would never have made, he must take an active role in his family’s affairs. The Mentor would return, not to take control, for that was not the Millet way, but to remind them of the responsibilities that came with their extraordinary powers.

Naturally, he would keep himself largely hidden from them. After all, he had never been seen by any member of the recent generations. He must introduce himself carefully, making sure they never as much as guessed that he was no farther away than the attic of their own shop, and certainly without presenting a “solid” form they might become attached to.

The actions they took would, as they always had, depend on their own conclusions and skills.

Even as he stood there, only a floor or so from some current Millets, there were a few family members looking for traces of him in London, and perhaps elsewhere. Jude, the Mentor, smiled at the thought. They not only questioned that he had ever existed, they probably hoped he had not! If they could prove he was a myth, then they could forget about dark-haired males being dangerous to the family.

Since there was, right now, another dark-haired male Millet, they desperately longed to debunk the old theory.

In front of him shimmered a weblike veil. He pointed a single, long forefinger in its direction and it disappeared.

Jude had learned a good deal about the enemy, the Embran as they were called, and their home deep in the earth.

Right now, and for thirty years past, a single member of the Embran tribe had been present in New Orleans, creating unspeakable horrors he had so far managed to hide.

No more.

Jude would oversee the beginning of the end for the one who had recently been brought to his attention. An informer had reported that for thirty years the renegade Embran had been in this very city without the Mentor’s knowledge. And in the past few weeks this Embran, who had grown too drunk on having his fill of earthly delights to carry out his mission, had made a mistake and revealed himself. Panicked into action, at last he had taken up the quest he was sent to the surface of the earth to accomplish, to crush the Millets and steal the power his people believed the family had over the fate of the Embrans.

There was little time now. The madness was unfolding. And Marley Millet, a young female descendent of the Mentor’s, had been placed in a position where the enemy might well use her as their route to dominance. Over centuries, the Embran had come to the earth’s surface from deep in the earth. Only one of them was allowed to come at a time and they had to fight one another to the death for the privilege. For expediency, the winner chose to manifest either as male or female—more or less. These creatures came to satisfy their greed for human pleasures. And they wreaked pain and fear without ever tasting justice.

But the Embrans’ own twisted strengths had begun to fade. Had begun to fade, in fact, after the one who had ensnared the Mentor himself into marriage and caused the Millets to flee for their lives had left earth and returned to Embran. She carried with her some element that began the systematic termination of her kind.

Embran after Embran visited earth only to return without answers or help for a dying race, then the latest member arrived. After indulging himself in the perverted human sexuality to which they were all addicted, he had been betrayed by the one whom he trusted. Now he was faced with his own destruction.

Desperate to reverse his fortunes he had set a ruthless plot in motion that, unless thwarted, would make sure young Marley did not live to an old age.

The Mentor stood at the small, very high dormer window in the attic and looked down on Royal Street. His superb vision made it easy for him to see every incident, every human, in detail.

Somewhere, perhaps even very close to him, the final battle had begun.

There would be loss.

There would be terror in New Orleans.

The just order would be challenged and threatened.

The Mentor was ready and he hoped the often inconvenient balance between the human and the…the other, would not end in disaster.

Chapter 1

A woman would die.

Unless Marley Millet could find the victim, and quickly, it would be too late. Marley was convinced this was true and that she was the only one who could help.

In her crowded workroom on the third floor of J. Clive Millet, Antiques, on Royal Street in New Orleans, Marley paced in small circles, desperate for insight that would tell her how to find and rescue an innocent marked for murder.

On her workbench stood a red lacquer dollhouse, an intricate piece of nineteenth-century chinoiserie placed in her hands by a stranger for safe and secret keeping. She hadn’t and still didn’t know why, except that the house was the portal that led to a place of great danger for some. Above the curvy roof with flaking gilt twirls at each corner, a whirling sheath of fathomless gray took more definite shape, like a vaporous tornado. It shifted until its slenderest part disappeared through a wall of the dollhouse and the gaping maw at the other end crept closer to Marley. A current began to suck at her like a vast, indrawn breath.

The decision to stay or give in and be pulled away, her essence drawn out of her body, was still hers.

Whispers came, a word, and another and another, never growing louder, only more intense.

Marley pressed her hands over her ears, but the sounds were already inside her head. The few whisperers became a crowd, and although she could not make out much of what they said, she knew they were begging. The Ushers, as she knew the voices, wanted her. They needed her. They were the last, invisible advocates for a life on the edge of an unnatural death, calling for Marley to witness a crime in progress. Witness, and act to save the victim.

Almost two weeks earlier, she had done as they asked and traveled away from her body to a place she did not know, and a woman she did not know. Evil had permeated the atmosphere there and Marley knew a murder was planned.

“You left her to die.” This time the Ushers spoke clearly.

“I don’t even know who she is.” Her own voice sounded huge.

“You saw her.”

“But I only saw the inside of a room. I don’t know where it was.”

The whispers softened and became a gentle hum. And Marley let out a long, emptying breath. Another word came to her clearly, “Please.” A woman spoke.

It could be the victim. Perhaps it was not too late. Yet.

Marley expected the unexpected. She always had, day-by-day, from her earliest recollections.

Today was no exception, but she needed to decide what to do next without pressure from the sickening emotion she felt now.

Winnie, her Boston terrier, placed herself in Marley’s path and stared up at her. Black and shiny, the expression in Winnie’s eyes was almost too human. The dog was worried about her beloved mistress. Another step forward and Winnie flopped down on Marley’s feet, which meant she was imploring her boss not to leave her body. The dog had an uncanny way of sensing problems for Marley.

“Not you, too,” Marley said. “I need answers, Winnie, not more confusion. Now concentrate,” she told herself. “You’ve got a major problem.”

On that Sunday afternoon in June, Marley wrestled with a warning she’d received less than a week ago.

Her uncle Pascal, current steward of J. Clive Millet Antiques, had called her to his top-floor apartment. Speared by one of his most heated green stares, he had kept her there for more than an hour.

“Tell me you will do as you’re told,” he had said repeatedly. “I don’t meddle in your affairs, but it is my job to watch over you. Certain alarms have been raised and I will not have you straying into dangerous territory. Defy me and I shall…I shall have to rethink my trust in you.”

By “alarms,” he meant that although she hadn’t told him about the red house she had been given, or what had already happened, he had sensed a distance in her. He suspected she might be playing around with portals to other realities again and said so. He had not explained why he thought so. And Marley had been just as calm about not admitting she had not only encountered a portal, but it had already led her on a journey she could not get out of her mind, day or night. All she had told Uncle Pascal was that she was working hard and that long hours sometimes left her distracted. That was true, if not very helpful to her uncle. Where day-to-day issues were concerned, the Millets were in charge of their own actions, but Pascal had the final say if their powers threatened their safety.

Marley had been tempted to push him for an explanation of how he might make her regret disobedience; instead she had lowered her eyelashes and made a subservient sound.

“Good, good,” Uncle Pascal had said, expanding his muscular chest inside a green velvet jacket. “You are a kind girl. You four girls make a poor bachelor uncle think he’s done fairly well bringing up his brother’s children safely.” He smiled at his mention of “you four girls,” by whom he meant Marley and her three sisters, but had then given her a slight frown which they both understood meant that her outlandishly talented maverick brother, Sykes, was not a subject for discussion that day.

That had been then, when she wanted to please someone who, unlike her parents, had always been there for her. This was now, days later, and the curiosity that came with her ability to be called away from her body, to travel invisibly into another location, was once more too provocative to ignore.

Marley crossed her arms and stared at the dollhouse. The trembling cone of whirling matter sparked flashes of green, then blue. It was unlikely that more than a handful of people anywhere would be able to see the manifestation at all. Unlike aura readers, energy sentients were rarer than goldfish teeth. She was one of that elite number and her brother Sykes, hidden away wherever he had his mystery-shrouded sculpture studio, was another.

Marley wasn’t a child. She was thirty and her irresponsible parents had been exploring the world for twenty years. The only way any of Antoine and Leandra Millet’s offspring managed to see them was by tracking them down in distant places. Marley’s older sisters, Alex and Riley, were in London with their parents right now. Even if A and R, as the rest of the family dubbed them, were supposedly searching for the key to neutralize a family curse, who cared what they might think about the way their children lived, or how careful they were or were not?

But in a weak moment before his piercing stare Marley had, more or less, given her uncle the impression that if she encountered even a hint of subversive force, no matter how alluring she might find it, she would turn her back on whatever it was at once.

Boring.

Uncle Pascal was not a man to be easily frightened or to give fanciful warnings. Marley knew she could wriggle out of the agreement she’d made with him, but if she defied him and went too far with an experiment, her life might be changed forever.