Page 2 of 512345

The Greatest Gift

The Greatest Gift

November 6, 2011
BN ID: 2940013551213
ASIN: B00642W6XC

A Stella Cameron classic. First time in ebook!

With Christmas approaching, a conniving nanny and a lonely little boy plot to help a lovely Cornish maid break into the bitter heart of a sensual nobleman whose worldly needs may finally shake his resolve never to love again.

Start Reading Now:
Buy at Amazon.com Buy at BN.com Buy at Kobo.com Buy on iTunes

Out of Sight – Excerpt

Out of Sight

Mira (April 27, 2010)
ISBN-10: 0778327752
ISBN-13: 978-0778327752

Buy at Amazon.com Buy at BN.com Buy at Kobo.com Buy at Sony Reader Store Buy at iTunes.com Buy at Seattle Mystery Bookshop

Poppy Fortune edged through the crowd of partygoers in the spectacular St. Louis Street home of Louisiana senatorial hopeful Ward Bienville. She had just arrived—very late—but the only thing she knew for certain was that she wanted to escape again.

That was out of the question. She was there because she had to get out among people in the know. The hints and clues she needed would not be found by spending all her spare time alone or with her family.

Months earlier Poppy had made a foolish mistake but she had tried to put it right, and now, since the man whose forgiveness she wanted most despised her, she was determined to dig her way out of the mess by making herself invaluable. Poppy was set on finding a way to help solve the growing threat New Orleans faced—even if the citizens didn’t seem to know its magnitude. She might not be as strong a paranormal talent as her three brothers, or some of the others they knew, but she had an unusual skill that might save all of them.

Familiar faces circulated around her, people she had seen at her family’s club, Fortunes, and in photos from society events. Poppy didn’t see anyone she would call a friend. She did get distant glimpses of one or two of Ward’s close advisors among a tight group of people at the far end of the room.

What she did see, bursting from among the crowd, were more superalpha brain clusters than she had ever seen in one place. In fact, she had never seen more than one at a time and very few of those. Okay, maybe just one or two altogether. But she frequently located clusters of superior but lesser strengths than these, and she translated the motives that drove the host minds. Love, hate, avarice were all very common. There was a very uncommon degree of heightened stimulation in this room.

Slowly, swallowing hard to moisten her dry throat, she picked out first one, then another person with the telltale glowing chartreuse circle pulsing amid tight clumps of shocking violet spheres no bigger than fine dots. There were four superalphas, two men and two women and she didn’t know any of them.

Poppy gasped.

They all had the same emotional trigger.

They were desperate. They wanted revenge and power. They wanted their own way.

They were afraid of failure.

She turned aside, breaking the intensely uncomfortable contacts. Of course there were strong-minded people present, ambitious people. After all, only those interested in shaping politics and events would come….

She was here because she and Ward Bienville had met at Fortunes, which she managed for the family, and he had behaved as if she were his personal goddess ever since. Gifts, phone calls several times a day, invitations to accompany him to faraway places and to be at his side in just about everything he did. Despite not being wildly attracted to him, Poppy was a little flattered by Ward’s attention. That could be because her life felt like one big, disappointing flop.

And it made her mad. Sure, she had done something seriously wrong and come close to hurting innocent people, but she was sorry. She would never stop being sorry, but things had turned out fine for her brother Ben and Willow Millet, his Bonded partner as the Millet family referred to making a lifetime commitment. Other people got second chances so why not her? The answer made her eyes sting. The one person she really wanted to be with was unlikely ever to forgive what she had almost caused.

Ward was fun to be with, his charisma and drive fascinated her, but she wasn’t falling in love with him. She wouldn’t allow herself to think too hard about the man she did want. But there was another reason for her hanging around with the senatorial hopeful—she was aura sensitive and not in the simple way the uninitiated thought of the gift.

Poppy could see brain patterns like the ones that had just shocked her—but usually much more ordinary patterns. They emitted heat that created a spectrum of pulsing colors, some so brilliant they hurt her eyes.

Ward Bienville had the kind of wide circle of friends and acquaintances that brought her in contact with artists, professionals, industrialists, financiers, people with the will and capability to achieve. And among these the brain patterns were the most diverse she had seen in one place. She had even seen one or two she could not type.

Paranormals were a different matter. Poppy longed to know what their brain patterns might look like but they were either absent or not apparent to her.

If paranormals showed their brain patterns to anyone, it wasn’t Poppy and she had tried hard to see them.

A brunette with a voice like Diana Krall sat at the piano wearing a skimpy silver dress. The bottom of the skirt didn’t reach the edge of the piano bench, and the bodice hung on to the tips of her breasts as if glued there. But she could sing, play and she was beautiful.

Ward was always surrounded with beautiful people, male and female, which made Poppy a little uneasy about holding her own in such company. She wasn’t a shrinking violet but neither was she vain. Her own looks were complimented often enough, and some expert opinions had assured her she had a killer figure, but since Ward could have anyone he wanted, why her?

More important than any reservations she had was the opportunity to mix with the kind of New Orleans citizens the Embran were known to prefer.

This was the first time she’d been to Ward’s home. Not that she had not been invited—frequently.

Aubusson rugs graced dark, glinting wooden floors. Gilt-framed mirrors tossed around images of New Orleans’s rich and famous, the glitterati of the city. French Empire chandeliers, their lights supported by gold swans, and a series of Baccarat crystal wall sconces brought blinding prisms searing from the women’s jewelry.

“Ms. Fortune?” A white-jacketed waiter at her elbow offered her champagne, and she took a glass from his tray. He bowed and gave her a serious, deferential look.

French doors stood open to the gallery. Poppy peered outside and found what she expected; it was empty. No guests could bear to risk missing a little of Ward’s golden attention. So far she had managed to stay out of his line of sight but she already knew he had been asking if anyone had seen her. She wouldn’t be free of his attention much longer. She had ignored three calls from him on her cell phone, and when he asked why she had not picked up, which he would, she intended to be honest and tell him she had needed some solitude.

Poppy smiled a little. Ward would only be more anxious for her approval if she thwarted him occasionally. He expected to get what he wanted in all things.

She stepped into the warm, fragrant night and closed her eyes for an instant. The gallery was dimly lit and relatively peaceful, despite the noise behind her.

When she approached the grillwork railing, cold slipped over her skin Her heart speeded up and she wrinkled her brow. Rather than finding peace in the open air, agitation exploded through her. Sweat broke out along her spine and between her breasts. Her brow was instantly damp.

Voices rose from the street below—laughter, high-pitched female yells punctuated by male bellowing. St. Louis wasn’t a main party street. People tended to wander through on their way to Bourbon Street and the center of the French Quarter. The group down there went on their way and relative quiet filled in behind them.

Suffused light showed through shutters at the windows opposite. Overhead, blood-edged inky clouds slunk across a thin white moon.

Breath caught in her throat.

She wasn’t alone.

Champagne slopped from the glass and over her trembling hand. Of course she was alone. She looked right and left, peered into every corner. Nothing on the gallery moved other than hanging flowers caught by the faint breeze.

“Hi, Poppy. You seem edgy,” a familiar deep voice said.

Poppy jumped and her knees locked.

Sykes Millet wasn’t a man she would fail to recognize, even in darkness. “What are you doing here?” she said. “You weren’t here seconds ago.”

“Of course I was,” he said with a hint of laughter in his voice. “I saw you come out but you seemed preoccupied. I didn’t want to make you jump.”

He had done that anyway.

Very tall, his black hair slightly wavy and grown past his collar, he sauntered toward her from the left, from the farthest reaches of the gallery. He wore a tux. She saw the snowy shine of his shirt in the gloom. With his jacket pushed back and both hands in his pants pockets, he took his time reaching her, enough time to give her a chance to consider fleeing inside.

“Nice dress,” he said, arriving in front of her. His eyes passed over her body in a way that made her feel naked—or wish she were.

Poppy turned very, very hot. “Thanks.”

“Where have you been hiding yourself?”

“I’ve been around.” And she was surprised he would know or care where she was.

“You spent time in northern California with your folks.”

The glow from inside the condo illuminated his face. Every feature had its own shadow. Winging black brows, heavy lashes around his eyes, high, sharp cheekbones and a square jaw. And his mouth. The outline showed clearly, a fuller bottom lip and corners that tilted up a little even when he was quite serious. He was serious now but she saw him suck a long breath.

Sykes Millet was something else.

“How long have you been back?” he asked, and she realized she hadn’t responded to his last remark.

“Months,” she said. “I was only away for about a week. The club needs me around.”

She was, Sykes decided, thinking about the last time they met when she had confessed to him how she had tried to break up Ben Fortune and Sykes’s sister Willow. “I think Liam and Ethan need you, too,” he said of her other brothers who were also involved in the business to much lesser degrees.

“You didn’t say why you were here,” she said, visibly relaxing enough to sip her champagne. “Are you a friend of Ward’s?”

“Nope. But I know who he is…

Out of Mind – Excerpt

Willow walked quickly along Chartres Street.

Her breathing grew shallower, and the space between her shoulder blades prickled.

Don’t look back. Keep going.

Jazz blared from bars and clubs. People spilling from doorways onto New Orleans’s crowded sidewalks jostled her in the throng. They danced, raised their plastic cups of booze and wiggled the way they never would at home. Colored metallic beads draped necks and more strands were thrown from flower-laden balconies overhead. Laughter and shouting all but drowned out the noise of passing vehicles.

Another French Quarter evening was tuning up.

Her new enemy clawed at the pit of her stomach: panic. Until a few days ago she had been a completely in-charge, take-on-the-world woman. Then she had become convinced she was being followed.

Whenever she left her flat in the Court of Angels behind her family’s antiques shop, J. Clive Millet on Royal Street, someone watched her every move. They were waiting for the right moment to grab her—she was certain of it.

Don’t run.

Sweat stung her eyes, turned her palms slick, and her heart beat so hard and fast she couldn’t swallow.

If she didn’t prefer to ignore the paranormal talents she had in common with the rest of the Millet family, she could come right into the open and ask some or at least one of them for advice. But how could she ask Uncle Pascal, her brother, Sykes; her sister Marley; or even one of her other sisters in London if they would help? Despite some recent slips, she continued to insist she was“normal,” and so were they.

Willow suspected her family watched her more closely these days, which meant they had figured out that she was stressed. Keeping anything from them for long was impossible. She felt the smallest twinge of guilt for enjoying the comfort that gave her.

Why was she only feeling someone shadowing her rather than actually seeing a face? That was one of her talents—she saw the face of a negative human force, sometimes a long time before meeting the person.

This time she couldn’t pick up any image.

Darn it that she was burdened with the Millet mystique. She saw the looks she got. Every New Orleans native knew about the family, which she didn’t think helped her business, Mean ’n Green Concierge, all things domestic, nothing too large or too small. She only mentioned her concierge services in ads she placed for personal assistant services.

The sun was lower, a red ball that seemed to pulse in a purpling haze. And there was no air—just tight, wet pressure. Willow had grown up in the city and loved it, but heat did add to the sense of doom she felt.

Even the scent of flowers cascading from the scrollwork of black iron galleries was too sweet. That didn’t make any sense. Willow loved to smell scented petunias and jasmine, and the rich floral brew that almost overcame the aroma of hot grit and used booze. Not today.

She cut a left onto St. Louis Street. Usually she rode her green-and-white scooter with its little equipment trailer around town, but since she’d only been going to discuss an order with Billy Baker, the specialty baker she used, she’d decided to walk instead.

Being on the scooter would feel safer—even more so when she got her new helmet with large, rearview mirrors.

Two blocks and she turned right onto Royal Street. A cop listened distractedly to a ranting drunk and his gesticulating buddies. For an instant Willow considered asking to talk to the cop, but what would she say?

She didn’t run, but she did speed up.

Her hair lifted a little on one side, as if blown by a breeze, only there wasn’t one. Softness brushed her neck, then something tiny and sharp.

A scream erupted; she couldn’t stop it. Willow stood still, forced the sound from her lips and then spun around, searching in every direction. Nothing. There was nothing but people, people everywhere. She touched her neck but there was zero to feel.

She got stares, and more space to herself on the sidewalk.

The shop sign, J. Clive Antiques, shone gold against black paint and she did run the final yards until she could get inside. The doorbell jangled, and she jumped, despite expecting the sound. She closed herself inside and bowed her head while she marched purposefully toward French doors leading out into the Court of Angels at the back of the shop. Her flat was there among those belonging to other family members. She wanted to get to her private place and lock herself in.

“There you are, Willow.”

Uncle Pascal. Current family head since Willow’s father had abdicated his responsibilities—more than twenty years earlier—in favor of running after family secrets in various parts of the world, Uncle Pascal had a penchant for stating the obvious.

“Here I am,” Willow said and thought, and here I go, as she carried on past gleaming old furniture, glittering glass and finely glowing paintings, toward her goal: the back door.

“I’ve been waiting for you,” Uncle said, moving into her path. “I say little about you continuing with this silly, mundane business of yours when you should be honing your natural skills, but I do expect you to check in with me more regularly than you do.”

“Sorry, but I do make sure you see me in the mornings.”

She dodged to one side.

So did Uncle Pascal—the same side. “I want to talk to you about your future,” he said.

She looked at him, big, muscular, shaven-headed and handsome…and really irritated right now.

“Futures take care of themselves if we let them,” she said, instantly wishing she hadn’t said anything at all. “I mean—”

“I know what you mean. You have buried your head in the sand and you continue to pretend you can avoid who and what you are. We all know what you are, Willow. And now you are needed to play an active part in the very serious situation we’re all facing in New Orleans.”

Very serious situation? Do you know exactly what’s been happening to me?

What she must not do was lead the potential witness, her uncle. If he knew something that would impact her, let him spell it out on his own.

“You don’t intend to come clean with me, do you?” Uncle Pascal said. “Despite everything, you’ll go on pretending everything is what you call, normal.”

She raised her chin. “What makes you so sure it’s not?”

“We have our ways, and we already know it’s not,” he said, his brows drawn ominously downward over a pair of the very green eyes common to all Millets, except her brother, Sykes, which was a great concern to some members of the family. “But this delivery proves we aren’t the only ones aware of a threat.”

He went behind the shiny mahogany counter and hauled an open cardboard box on top.

“Who are we, Uncle?”

He scrubbed at his bald scalp. If he didn’t shave it, there would be a thick head of red hair, but for reasons they all tried to ignore, he had first shaved it when he took Antoine’s place as head of the Millets. Uncle Pascal didn’t want the job, or so he said, and since the red hair was one of the major attributes that qualified him, he chose to get rid of it in defiance.

“Who?” Willow repeated, growing angry at the thought of the others huddling together to discuss her—invading her privacy, as usual. “Have you been in my head again? You know it’s against the rules unless you ask permission to enter my mind.”

“Rules?” Pascal said, his brows elevated now. “What rules? You don’t believe in the Millet rules, or anything about the paranormal talents with which we are all blessed—so why would you care or acknowledge the rules? Or are you finally accepting them?”

She closed her mouth and crossed her arms. There would be no winning an argument with Uncle Pascal.

“Even if we didn’t know something unusual is going on with you, this would make sure we suspected as much.”

He lifted a crash helmet from the box. White with Mean ’n Green’s lime-green insignia that looked a bit like the wings on the Greek Hermes’s heels, it was the twin of the one she already used, apart from rather large rearview cycling mirrors mounted on either side.

Willow gaped. “You opened my stuff!”

“It wasn’t shut. It was delivered by a messenger from the place where you bought it. I thought it was something for the shop. Aren’t these mirrors interesting?”

“For safety,” she said, glowering. No way would she admit she wanted eyes in the back of her head these days and mirrors were the next best thing.

“And what about this?” He placed a smaller, oblong box beside the bigger one. “I suppose this is for safety, too.”

“That’s my business.” She scrambled to excuse that second box. “It’s something I’m going to give Marley and Gray for their kitchen.” Her sister Marley and Gray Fisher were recently married, or Bonded as the Millets preferred to call it. There had also been an actual wedding to please Gray’s dad, Gus, who was one of Willow’s favorite customers.

“I know what’s in this,” Uncle said.

She snatched it away and turned it over. It was unopened. “No, you don’t. You’re trying to trick me into telling you.”

“Why do you think I need to open a box to know what’s inside?” he said. “Don’t you think a Beretta PX4 Storm is a bit overkill for a first handgun?”

Ben Fortune also saw the gun inside the package and couldn’t imagine Willow being able to hold the thing steady. This was a very small woman. He knew well that she was strong, but could she hit what she wanted to hit with the weapon?

He saw Willow’s back stiffen. That didn’t have to be because she had sensed him behind her, standing near a Napoleonic desk he had been examining when she hurried into the shop. But given the long pause after Pascal announced the gun, he didn’t think she was reacting to that. She should have responded to her uncle by now.

Odds were that she did sense Ben. His own fault since he should have made sure that was not possible until he wanted it to be. From Pascal’s behavior he must have assumed Ben would mask his presence until he was alone with Willow. Pascal had promised to leave them once he’d had his say with his niece.

Too bad one glimpse of her and Ben had forgotten to do what should come naturally—reveal only what he must until he found out exactly how the land lay with the woman formerly pledged to become his lifelong Bonded partner.

That was a pledge he had never given up on, regardless of how Willow thought she could call all the shots. Despite sending him away—for good, she had insisted—she must have expected him back eventually.

Ben smiled slightly. A few experiments, really touching experiments, would prove if they still had what it took to send each other into pain and ecstasy at the same time. They had never actually made love—Willow had seen to that—but the foreplay was explosive, unforgettable. He heated up from the inside out thinking about those incendiary sensations. That electric, erotic pain between two of their kind was considered proof of preordained Bonding with a Millet. Somewhere in the mists of that family’s founding, a brilliant elder must have thought such intense feelings would test the loyalty of a male’s prospective mate and protect their women’s honor.

Apparently, the founder responsible for the concept had not taken into account that irresistible stimulation could become addictive.

There would be a test between Ben and Willow, but he had no doubt the compulsion would be as strong as ever.

He hadn’t seen her in two years since she told him they weren’t meant for each other. After that she wouldn’t see or speak to him.

Ben had left New Orleans, and ran the family business—a very successful club, Fortunes, and other enterprises around the city—from his retreat on the island of Kauai.

“You can see inside closed packages?” Willow said to Pascal.

“That surprises you?”

She muttered something, but she wasn’t concentrating on her uncle. Instead Ben could see her struggle not to turn around. Her shoulder blades pressed together, then released, as if she were trying to relax.

Well, if the way he reacted simply to the sight of her was any indication of things to follow, he’d better not miss any vitamins.

“Hey, Willow, remember me?” he asked her through channels he attempted to open between their minds.

He’d lost his marbles, not that she had ever responded to his mind contacts in the past. That would have put the lie to her insistence that she had no paranormal powers.

“What are you doing here?” she responded, gripping the counter with both hands.

His turn to stiffen. The muscles in his back and thighs turned rock hard. Damn, this was great, she’d forgotten to cover up.

“What do you think? You and I have unfinished business. It’s been unfinished for too long. And you need me now—you need all of us.”

“Sykes got you here, didn’t he? He could have talked to me about it first. You two have always shut me out.”

“You decided to shut us out, Willow. You and I could always be as close as you wanted to be. The decisions on that were yours, remember?”

“I didn’t ask you to come. I—Oh, darn it.”

He felt her cut him off. It was gratifying to know he could cause her to break rules she’d made for herself in her teens when Willow had decided she would be “normal.”

“You’re upset and trying not to need anyone. Don’t shut me out.” It was worth another try to establish an intimate connection with her.

Out of Body – Excerpt

Out of Body

Mira
March 1, 2010
ISBN-10: 0778327620
ISBN-13: 978-0778327622

Buy at Amazon.com Buy at BN.com Buy at Kobo.com Buy at Sony Reader Store Buy at iTunes.com Buy at Seattle Mystery Bookshop

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 doll house, 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 doll house 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 her 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 in 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 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 doll house. 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 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 L, 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.

In fact, her life could well be over.

On the other hand, it did not have to be and she was hearing seductive whisperings from The Ushers, the invisible forces that were her companions when she heeded their cries and went traveling through parallel time.

The Ushers were back after only days. They never came unless she was needed, always somewhere right in New Orleans, always immediately. On this humid afternoon, a great urgency lapped at her.

Like a whirlpool, the funnel into the doll house spun faster and faster. Soft, faintly vibrating, this apparition was familiar, as were the increasingly desperate waves of sensation beckoning her closer.

Apart from brushes with malignant spirits who tried to block her path, she had never encountered real danger on her journeys. But she did know of the terrible threat she faced. If she ever lost her way back, her soul could be forever separated from her life, from her living body. She would known manic terror while she searched for a way to return. If she failed, she would forever toss free, carried by the demanding currents of those on the edge of death and begging her to save them?

During each of her earlier travels she had done good things, brought about rescues for people who would never even know her name—until her most recent transfer through a parallel space, the one she had not mentioned to her uncle.

She had lied by not talking about it and guilt didn’t make a comfy companion.

Despite the cry she had heard only moments ago, Marley believed that someone in New Orleans, a woman she had been called to help, must be prematurely dead by now. Without knowing who the victim had been or exactly what happened to her, Marley was convinced she had kept company with a victim’s final heartbeats, seen through her now-dead eyes.

At her feet, satiny black and white and giving off waves of displeasure, Winnie snuffled irritably. The dog was a barometer of Marley’s moods and objected to these moments when she sensed she was not uppermost in her favorite person’s mind. Winnie was ignoring her constant companion, a huge plastic bone, and this was a sure sign that she wasn’t happy.

Absently, Marley used her bare toes to squeeze one of Winnie’s feet.

What if the woman hadn’t died? What if she was still alive and reaching out, one last time, for help?

Marley switched off the lights over her bench and reluctantly made her way between aged pieces of furniture and objets d’art awaiting her attention. She was known as one of the best restorers of antique lacquer and gold leaf in the city.

Her door onto a tiny landing outside was shut. Stained glass panels, richly emerald, ruby, sapphire and amethyst, glowed, dappled faint colors on the dusty wooden floors in the dim workroom.

For some seconds, Marley rested her hand on the latch. Then she turned it, thumped the heavy bolt home. Anyone trying the handle from the outside would know to leave her alone.

She retraced her steps and stood in front of her bench again. All around her, the air buzzed and popped. Here and there she caught sight of partly formed faces, their mouth open as if calling out.

Slowly, her feet and legs heavy, Marley stepped backward, once, twice, three times until her calves bumped into her cracked, brown leather wing chair, and she sank onto the seat.

“Don’t go,” she told herself aloud.

Too late. The separation had already begun. Luminous green brushed the tunnel, spun quickly and turned the vapor to shimmering water. Inviting. Marley felt it’s warmth, it’s temptation. She touched it with her fingertips, drew it open wider. It’s matter adhered to her skin. Her own weight slipped away and she was free, gliding through the iridescent tunnel toward a pulsing black membrane.

The membrane opened, slid apart like the aperture in a camera lens. Scents of age and dampness rushed at her.

Wetness shone in grimy rivulets on the concrete walls of an empty room. This was the room she had been in last time. Ahead of her the door to some sort of compartment—or locker—stood wide open, a thick, heavy door with no handle on the inside.

In the opening a woman in red gradually appeared from clouds of icy mist.

Not the same woman as the last time.

Dark-haired as the other had been, rather than being striking and voluptuous with a single black birthmark above her mouth, this time the facial features were pointed, the eyes large beneath thickly painted lashes Behind her thin figure, the mist hovered around hooks hung from a slowly revolving rod, and billowed over white, rectangular boxes placed in a precise row.

Shapes, indistinct, swung heavily just out of clear sight. Marley thought they were suspended from the hooks.

She shivered. Cold struck painfully into her brain. She should go back but she could not look away from the woman, from her pale, pleading face.

Then the woman smiled. She cocked her head to one side, listening to a deep voice as mellifluous as warm honey falling from a crystal spoon into a golden bowl. The voice said, “Come to me, child.”

Nodding, the woman appeared in a trance.

The voice darkened, caressed but with force. “Join me, child. Now. Come to me, now.”

And she began to drift away, back into the space behind the heavy door.

“Wait!” Panicked, Marley moved her presence forward. “Let me help you. Come with me.” From experience, she knew she couldn’t be heard and that only if she managed to bring help from the real world to this place would there be any help for the woman.

But there were no clues as to where she was.

The door began to close and Marley could scarcely breathe. She thrust herself forward, clawing at air as if it would help her move faster, and she collided with the creature in red. Instantly she felt consumed into rigid flesh, bone-cold flesh, and she cried out, “I must go back.”

The wrench to separate again sapped her consciousness. She could not slip into sleep here, must not. The Ushers mumbled very close and Marley focused on their sounds. She gathered strength and once more she heard the thump, thump, thump of a heartbeat that was not her own, and saw through eyes that didn’t belong to her. This woman wasn’t yet dead, then.

She struggled, staring ahead, willing herself to break free. And as she did she cried out to the woman, “Hold my hand. Come with me now.” While she talked, she searched around for any clues to her location. Nothing.

Her fingers, repeatedly reaching for the woman, came back empty each time.

A man stood with his back to her, a tall, dark-haired man, with wide shoulders and a straight, unyielding spine. He had a different substance and dimension from either the woman or their surroundings.

Marley had started to shift. Faint warmth entered her, and she caught sight of the funnel regenerating, its direction switched so that the large opening faced her again. Still vaporous, it took on the green tint.

Thrusting forward like a swimmer with the pool wall in sight, she made to pass the man and he looked at her over his shoulder. For one instant she cringed at the directness of his gaze, the hardness of a mouth that should be beautiful, despite a thin white scar that slashed through both lips and upward across one cheek in several slashes.

But he couldn’t see her, could he? She must be imagining that he was staring at her.

Marley gave a last, horrified look to where the woman had stood, only she had disappeared. A last thought as she felt a familiar, dragging pull, was that she knew why the man seemed out of place: She saw him not in color as she did the rest her surroundings, but in the gray shades of a black and white photograph. And as she stared at him his face changed again. The corners of his mouth tilted up and the scars faded.

2:00 a.m. the following morning outside The Court of Angels on Royal Street in the French Quarter:

He nodded and faced the street to step off the sidewalk. His hands were deep in his pockets. Every move he made flowed. He had a powerful grace, like a big cat.

She shouldn’t have gone to that club alone. More than that, she should not have allowed Gray Fisher to walk her through the French Quarter at this time of night—or morning. Anything could have happened.

The instant before she looked away, Gray Fisher glanced at her over his shoulder.

That look wasn’t soft or humorous anymore. Just for a flicker of time he stared, and Marley went into the antique shop and slammed the door. She shot home the locks.

It was the light, it had to be. But then, it had been the light the first time she saw hardness in those eyes that looked black, not whiskey-colored anymore. The light had turned his face into a facsimile of a black and white photograph. What the living face amazingly concealed, a negative image revealed: a thin, white scars passed through Gray’s mouth, sliced upward beside his nose and across his cheek.

A Marked Man – Excerpt

A Marked Man

Mira
February 1, 2008
Amazon ASIN: B00134D6VC
ISBN-13: 978-1460308547

Buy at Amazon Buy at Barnes and Noble Buy at iTunes

The moon was a thin white wafer with a big bite missing.

Walking silent streets at night—alone—could be a bad idea.Staying in bed, half awake, half asleep, sweat stinging your eyes, sticking hair to your face, while the monster panic ate you up could be a whole lot worse idea. Nothing bad ever happened around here anyway.

Annie Duhon moved quietly through the town square in Toussaint, Louisiana. That violated moon, coy behind riffles of soft gray cloud, pointed a pale finger at the wide road lined with sycamores, stroked a shine on the windows of businesses and homes on either side.

A warm breeze felt friendly. Yesterday there had been a sidewalk sale and food fair. Holiday lights strung between trees on a triangle of grass in the center of the street were turned on at dusk; they were still on and bobbled, out of place for the time of year, but festive and comforting…briefly.

She ought to know better than be lulled by a few strands of quivering colored lights. She ought to turn back and lock herself inside her apartment over Hungry Eyes, the book shop and café run by the Gables, Toussaint’s only lawyer and his wife. They lived next door and she had an open invitation, almost an order to go to them at any time if she needed help.

Help, I had another bad dream.They’ve been happening for more than a couple of weeks and they get worse all the time. Someone dies but I don’t know who. It’s a woman. Could be me.

Sure she would tell them that, and what could they do about it? A battered pickup clanked by and made a left turn at the next corner. When Annie reached the spot and looked for the vehicle, she saw it pull into the forecourt of Murphy’s Bar where a neon sign blinked on and off behind a grimy window. The small hours of the morning and some folks were still looking for company.

Annie kept walking. She had been here for seven months and felt happier than she had in years, until the nights came when she could not shut out terrible visions of death.

Ten minutes got her to St. Cécil’s church, glowing white in the darkness, Bayou Teche a faintly polished presence behind the church and the rectory on the other side of Bonanza Alley.

The bayou drew her, always had. She slipped past the church, reached the towpath and stood awhile, her thin cotton skirt caught to her thighs by warm currents of air.

A slap and suck sound, subtle, inexorable, reminded her how the bayou water kissed its banks on a night like this. Something swam, plopped, beat up a spray. A bass, maybe, or an alligator, or even a big rat. Rats reminded Annie of things she wanted to forget. She walked a few more steps and stopped. Noises swelled, pushed at her. Frogs grumbling, little critters skittering through the underbrush, a buzz in her ears, growing louder.

Annie turned around abruptly and retraced her steps. The breeze became a sudden wind, whipping leaves against her bare legs. A bird cried and she jumped, walked faster.

On Bonanza Alley again, she looked at the rectory. A subdued light shone in the big kitchen at the back but she knew Father Cyrus Payne always kept a light on in case a stranger happened by and needed a little welcome. That good man would be sleeping now.

There were not many good men like him.

Heat rose in her face and her cheeks throbbed. Speeding her pace only made the noises around her head louder. Low lights gleamed steadily behind the stained glass windows of the church. Annie stood still again and willed her heart to be quiet.

Slowly, she pushed open a gate in the white fence surrounding the churchyard. She stepped inside and walked along a path between tombs to a side door into St Cécil’s. Annie wasn’t a churchgoer, hadn’t been since she was a teenager. She gritted her teeth, climbed the steps into a small vestibule and turned the door handle, never expecting it to open. It did and she went inside. Church used to be real important to her, until she offended and the holy congregation suggested she shouldn’t be there.

Her mama had suffered even more than she had over that.

A wrought iron gate closed off a side chapel. Annie threaded her fingers through the scrollwork and peered into the candlelit cell beyond. Those candle flames glittered on gold thread in an embroidered hanging behind the little altar. She smelled incense, and old roses, their bruised heads hanging from frail, bent necks around the rim of a glass vase.

The roses reminded her of funeral flowers kept too long because when they were thrown out, the loss would feel more final.Death was final but while the tributes remained, before the false cheer of a life’s “celebration” died away and the sympathizers stopped coming around anymore, well then, the grieving ones could try to keep truth at bay.

Nights when she gave up on sleep brought images so clear they seemed real. She didn’t want them, or the thoughts that came with them.

Inside the chapel with the gates closed behind her, Annie sat on the cushioned seat of a bench, its high back carved into a frieze of wild animals and birds. She put her head in her hands. What would she do, what could she do? Push on, exhausted by frequent nights filled with ghastly images followed by occasional recurring flashes of the same sick dramas when she was awake?Yes,she guessed that was what she would do, and she would pray for the burden to be taken away.

She did not want to go home until morning. St. Cécil’s felt safer. Evil knew better than to enter God’s house.

Minutes passed and her head felt heavy. If she went to the rectory, Father Cyrus would take her in, she knew he would. He’d make her stay and want to listen to what troubled her.

Talking about her imagination wasn’t worth taking sleep from a busy man at this hour. And talking about the reality that haunted her from other times and places was out of the question—with Father Cyrus or anyone else.

Annie had come to Toussaint to take over a new position as general manager at Pappy’s Dance Hall and Eats just north of town. Since she’d first visited the place while she was back in school and planning a fresh direction for her life, Annie dreamed of owning something like Pappy’s one day. She’d never expected the dream to come true and working there felt unreal and wonderful.

Another unexpected surprise had been meeting Dr. Max Savage and falling into an unlikely friendship with him. He often stopped by Pappy’s after the lunch rush. Sitting with him while he ate had become a habit. His idea, not hers, but she probably looked forward to seeing him more than she ought to.

Max and his brothers, Roche and Kelly, planned to open a clinic in the area. Roche was also a doctor, and Kelly took care of business matters. There would be more doctors on the staff by the time they opened. Max persuaded her to go out a couple of times and said he wanted her to consider him a friend. She wanted to, but the last time she accepted an offer like his…well, the outcome hadn’t been good. She surely didn’t want Max to find out about either her past or her present troubles.

She and Max couldn’t be more different, he a highly regarded facial reconstructive plastic surgeon while Annie came from poor beginnings and had clawed for each handhold on the way to a modest, mostly trade education. Not that she wasn’t proud of what she had accomplished.

Truth was, she intended to remain in Toussaint and make already successful Pappy’s into a destination people came from all over to visit. She would get accustomed to being alone and whatever happened, she wouldn’t be falling back on her family in Pointe Judah, not so far from Toussaint. She loved them but didn’t need them, or anyone, to survive anymore.

She yawned and before her staring eyes, the candle flames blurred. Still watching the light, Annie lay on her side on top of the cushioned seat and pulled up her legs. There was no reason not to stay, just until it started to get light.

He trained the flashlight ahead and she couldn’t see his face behind the yellow-white beam.The beam bounced and jerked. She heard the sound of something dragging over leaves and sticks, rocks and sharp ,scaly pinecones. Another noise ,a clank-clank of metal on the stones was there just as it had been each time the man had come.

She heard him breathing, short, harsh breaths. But she also heard the sounds she made herself, a high little wheeze because she was so scared, her throat wouldn’t work properly.

What if he heard her?

She knew what he dragged behind him.

Her eyes burned.They burned every time.Too many times.

He dropped his burden and walked forward, his flashlight trained on a thick carpet of leaves.

Rain began to fall. It splattered the leaves on the ground, turned them shiny so she saw them clearly, distinct one from another.

Overhead, branches rattled together and wind whined.

If he looked up he’d see her. She was right there.

A scent swept at her nostrils. Coppery, like blood.And burned hair: there was no mistaking that, not when you’d smelled it so close before.

The man said,”Here we go,” as if he was with his children and he’d just found the ice-cream shop they’d all been looking for.More clattering and he poked through the leaves and mulch with the shining point of a brand-new shovel.

A woman’s body lay on the ground beside him, her eyelids burned off, and empty dark holes where her eyes had been.Her hair, nothing but a thin matted spongelike layer, shed filaments in the wind.

“Here we go,” the man said again. He didn’t start digging a hole but cleared debris from an area no more than two feet across.Poking and scraping quickly brought his satisfied sigh and he lifted the woman as if she weighed nothing. Rags of blackened clothing stuck to her rigid body.

“There we go,”the man said and dropped the corpse, headfirst into a hole that swallowed her.

Annie, her hands outstretched before her, ran at the man.”Bring her back. Give her back,” she cried. But when she reached for him he turned into fire, and she cried out in pain.

Her forehead struck the side of the altar. She fell to her knees, her arms upraised, and felt her left hand scorch. At the same moment she heard the sound of flame shooting along filaments.

She opened heavy eyes and saw a movement. On the far aisle of the church, she thought. A hooded figure. “No,” she murmured. There was no one there.

Then she was wide-awake, pulling herself to her feet, righting the candle she’d knocked over and using one end of a linen runner with silk fringes to beat sizzling threads cold. Immediately she ran to the sacristy and poured water over her hands and into the sink there. She held them under the cold water and realized she had been lucky to sustain little injury. No one need find out what had happened.

The pain ebbed. She found a first-aid kit and wound a bandage around her left hand to keep the air from hurting the wound. Returning to the chapel, she took the runner from the top of the altar and used it to clean black residue from the marble.

She would pay for another runner to be made. “Don’t jump,” a man said behind her.

Annie screamed. She screamed and shook her head, and staggered backward against him. Sweat stuck her clothes to her body. That woman she had seen in the nightmares was her, Annie. Premonitions, not nightmares. They were coming true. The gagging sounds she heard were her own.

“Annie, it’s me, Father Cyrus. People are lookin’ for you.”

Hi, Max,

It’s been a long time. Forgive me for not writing sooner.

Have you picked your next victim yet?

How was London? Clever of you to go there. Far enough away for you to get lost in another closed-ranks medical fraternity, but not so far you couldn’t keep an eye on things here. I expect you were surprised how quickly the media in the States forgot about you and your nasty little habit. I wasn’t surprised.

The media is fickle, with short attention spans, but that means they’re always on the hunt for the next story, or the next installment of an old, sick story like yours.

Did you lose a close friend in London? You know the kind of friend I mean.A woman.If you did, you hid the evidence well.We didn’t hear a thing about it.

There are a few questions I want you to think about and maybe you’ll tell me the answers one day.Do you disfigure them so badly because you enjoy knowing that you are one of the few who could put some of their bones and flesh back together again, if you wanted to? Does the thought turn you on?

Do you tell them what they’ll look like afterwards and remind them that you know how to mend wounds like that—then laugh when you say you don’t heal dead women?

You’re back.That’s too bad, but we’ll make the best of it.You’ve chosen a quaint place to hide—conveniently out of touch, too, but that doesn’t mean a few words here and there won’t have the whole town watching you.If you stray, even sleepy Toussaint will notice the attention you get.

Be very, very careful who you associate with,Doctor.Stay away from whores.You know how quickly your history can jump into the public eye from every media outlet across the country—the way it did before.They loved crucifying you then and they’ll love it even more the next time—if there is a next time.But that’s up to you.Try to control yourself, and keep your nose clean.

Remember how charges in the first death, poor Isabel’s, were dismissed for lack of evidence? And the second one went the same way? Carol was so sexy.

How did you wait all those years before you killed the second time? Or did you wait? Did other women die in between without any connection being made to you?

The third time (that they find out about) won’t be a charm for you. I don’t know why I waste my time trying to help you.Once a killer, always a killer.You’ll do it again and probably soon—unless I find a way to stop you.

Return to Top

A Marked Man

A Marked Man

Mira
February 1, 2008
Amazon ASIN: B00134D6VC
ISBN-13: 978-1460308547

A Bayou Book

A Stella Cameron classic. First time in eBook.

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLING AUTHOR STELLA CAMERON’S STEAMY NEW SUSPENSE CUTS LIKE A KNIFE

“If you’re looking for chilling suspense and red hot romance, look no farther than Stella Cameron!” —Tess Gerritsen

The object of obsessive hatred or an evil killer? Max Savage claims he is a marked man who unwittingly attracts danger to anyone he cares about, but the folks in Toussaint, Louisiana aren’t so sure.

When Annie Duhon meets Dr. Max Savage, she tries to deny their mutual attraction. Scarred both physically and psychologically by a terrifyingly violent incident in her past, she’s a young woman who has struggled to overcome feelings of inadequacy. For years she has avoided all romantic relationships with men. Now, as manager of Pappy’s, the colorful dance hall and eatery in Toussaint, she’s achieved a level of success she never thought possible — but the scars remain. Max has other reasons for keeping his feelings for Annie to himself. For years, he claims, an unknown assailant has hounded him — a lunatic who has viciously killed any woman Max has become involved with. The clever villain has even managed to turn suspicion for his crimes on Max. No charges have ever been proved, but neither has Max ever been able to establish his innocence. Better to deny himself and keep Annie safe than expose her to possible danger.

Now, Max has come to Toussaint to start a new practice far from the rumors and innuendo that have nearly ruined his life. As he works with his brothers to develop his new clinic, Max finds himself growing closer to Annie. Finally, unable to resist his attraction to her, he convinces himself that he can risk a new relationship.

Then another woman, a colleague, goes missing and suspicion again falls on Max. Though he insists that he isn’t the serial killer, that someone else is targeting him, can Annie take the chance that he’s just a marked man?

Finding himself in the same situation — again suspected of a terrible crime — Max realizes that he’ll never beat his tormentor by running away. Rather, he must unmask the killer and prove his innocence before it’s too late — for himself and for Annie.

(originally published November 2006 by Harlequin MIRA)

Start Reading Now:
Buy at Amazon Buy at Barnes and Noble Buy at iTunes


 

Target

Target

Mira
April 1, 2007
ISBN-10: 0778324257
ISBN-13: 978-0778324256

A Bayou Book

Nearly two decades ago a charismatic man called Colin controlled an isolated community hidden in foothills north of San Francisco in what was supposed to be a life free of materialism. Instead, Colin turned The Refuge into a mass grave as he completed a sinister plan to exterminate his followers—all except three children, who slipped through his fingers and escaped with his secrets.

Today, Nick Board and the two beautiful sisters, Sarah and Aurelie, who escaped with him, are living quietly under the radar in the little bayou town of Point Judah, Louisiana. But when the bodies at The Refuge are uncovered, the nightmare of the past forces the friends out into the open. To survive, they must stay one step ahead of the man who has been waiting for them to surface. Driven by greed and anger, he intends them to take his secrets to their graves.

Read an Excerpt

Start Reading Now:
Buy at Amazon.com Buy at BN.com Buy at Kobo.com Buy at Sony Reader Store Buy at iTunes.com Buy at Seattle Mystery Bookshop

 

Target – Excerpt

Target

Mira
April 1, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0778324257
ISBN-13: 978-0778324256

Buy at Amazon.com Buy at BN.com Buy at Kobo.com Buy at Sony Reader Store Buy at iTunes.com Buy at Seattle Mystery Bookshop

In the Pointe Judah News seventeen years later:

MASS GRAVE UNCOVERED IN CALIFORNIA Skeletons of thirty-three recovered: Workers stumble on abandoned gold mine.

In one of the most horrific mass-death discoveries in California history, a sudden ground collapse during installation of a new cell tower has revealed multiple human remains.

Tangled skeletons suggest a desperate struggle to escape asphyxia in an abandoned gold mine.

Workers drilling at the site report that they became aware that they had broken into an existing cavity when surrounding earth began to cave in.The drill had pierced what is believed to have been a large vent intended to bring air into the mine. Most of the victims were heaped at the bottom of this hundred-foot-deep vent and are presumed to have been trying to claw their way up.

Officials have already tied the deceased to members of a northern California commune known as “The Refuge.” Seventeen years ago, people in the nearby town of Grove noticed the sudden absence of commune members. Until then, people from The Refuge had frequented shops and other businesses in Grove.At that time, police visited the settlement and found trailers still filled with possessions, but the owners had left.

It appeared that these people had supported themselves with extensive marijuana cultivation.

All efforts to track down members of the commune failed until the recent discovery.

Officials have announced that pieces of identification for thirty-three people were found with the remains. Longtime residents in Grove recall some of the people whose photographs are on these documents as commune members.

The public is asked to contact their local police departments with any tips, and to be advised that intensive efforts are under way to complete positive identifications.

If you think one of your friends or relatives may have been among the dead, the police would like to hear from you as soon as possible.

Pointe Judah, Louisiana

This was it. Decisions had to be made.

Nick Board didn’t want to admit, even to himself, that he was afraid, but he’d be a fool if he wasn’t. He had to protect the lives of the people he loved, and his own.

He turned his Audi from Main Street into the forecourt of Ona’s Out Front, the bar and diner side of Ona’s business. In the same building, Ona’s Out Back, an unlikely tea shop, lay directly behind the diner. He parked next to a familiar, bright yellow Miata that reflected dazzling sun-bursts off its spotless paint.

Inside, her elbows propped on the stainless-steel counter that spanned the windows, sat Sarah Board, one of his supposed sisters and the owner of the Miata. From the direction of her glance, she couldn’t see him for the glare.

Nick got out of the car and faced Main Street, just to give himself a little time to settle down. Vehicles and people passed through the white-hot haze of midafternoon. He poked at the nosepiece of his sunglasses.

Two weeks ago the headline and lead article in the Pointe Judah News had stunned Nick, stunned Aurelie and Sarah and thrust them back where they’d learned not to go: to the day when Mary Chance had sent them to Georgia. He could not get past the conviction that she had suspected they were all in deadly danger. She had stayed to make sure he and the two girls got away. Nick had no proof, would never have proof, but he knew what he knew. While they escaped, she covered for their absence.

Today, after a relentless national media feast since the grave was discovered, a new story twist had come out. He had read about it on the Internet a couple of hours earlier.

He thought back to when he, Muriel and Ena set off for Savannah. By the time they arrived, the sisters had chosen new names, Sarah and Aurelie. In their fabricated lives, all but four people thought they were his sisters. The fourth was Delia Board, Mary’s old friend, the CEO and primary shareholder of Wilkes and Board Cosmetics. Delia had taken in three teenagers and raised them as if they were her own children.

Even members of the Board clan—all retired now—accepted the story that Delia had quietly adopted the three children of an old friend. Delia was the “whippersnapper” of the family and the old brigade didn’t question anything she did as long as they didn’t have to become actively involved in the business. The Boards had bought out the Wilkes, but the name of the company was too famous to change.

He couldn’t have guessed then how grateful he would become that although they had taken the Board name, adoption was automatically out of the question. They had continued to hope his mother was alive, and to this day he and Delia didn’t know whether Sarah and Aurelie had a family somewhere. They had steadfastly recoiled from the subject.

Aurelie was never far from his thoughts. he’d made up his mind he had to do something about his feelings for her. At least test the waters. But he would wait until this nightmare passed.

Delia had insisted on moving the teenagers away from Savannah soon after they arrived. She was too much of a public figure there, she said.

First they’d gone to Portland, Oregon, where Delia’s cosmetic company had offices. Again, she decided her profile was too high and they’d moved on, this time to settle in Pointe Judah. Delia continued to run the business from there and built a small research and development lab outside the town.

The second move had worked. After initial curiosity, the community accepted and mostly ignored the quiet folks who lived in antebellum Place Lafource, a mansion on a lush estate backing onto Bayou Nezpique. “Nick Board, how much longer are you going to stand out here gaping at nothing?, Sarah, almost six feet of her, was already raising her voice at him when she came through the doors of the diner. “I believe you think I’m the least important person around. You said to meet you and Aurelie in Ona’s half an hour ago but I find you wandering around outside with no concern for my feelings.”

“I didn’t see you coming,” he said. “I’m enslaved to your feelings, Sarah, my love. I was sort of waiting for Aurelie to get here. I’m glad she decided to come home and stay until we figure out how big a problem we’ve got.” Aurelie was a New Orleans insurance lawyer.

“Nick! you’re really scaring me.”

When he turned his head, Sarah put her face so close to his that her eyes distorted into one fuzzy blue thing between her eyebrows. He drew back to see her properly. She wore her short, bleached hair in spikes and used dramatic makeup on a face composed of upswept lines and sharp bones. A fascinating face and a build like a tall dancer attracted a lot of attention.

They were both chemists and worked at the Wilkes and Board labs just east of Pointe Judah. Nick’s position had expanded into taking over direct administration of the facility and being Delia’s right hand whenever she wanted it.

Sarah crossed her arms and tweaked at her hair, signs that her temper was about to reach gale force.

He look a step backward. “Okay, okay, settle down. We probably don’t have a thing to worry about.” Sometimes even the peace-at-any-price guy ended up on the battlefront.

“I’m so mad at you.” Sarah landed a fist on his shoulder and he jumped. “Now what?, he asked. Scrubbing at his face didn’t help calm him down.

“You dither around, lost in who knows what, while I worry myself to skin and bone. You are a thoughtless, self-centered bastard.”

“It’s not nice to remind me about the circumstances of my birth,” Nick said, but his humor was thinning rapidly.

“You told us to meet you here because we’ve got to talk. I don’t want to stand around imagining the worst. Tell me the latest.”

“I’m not saying it twice,” he told her. “As soon as Aurelie gets here we’ll go somewhere private and decide what to do next.”

“You love controlling things.”

“You don’t get it, do you?, Nick said. “I want out of all this intrigue we’ve lived with as much as you do. Maybe more.”

A black Hummer, the giant kind they’d stopped making, cut across Main Street in front of oncoming traffic and howled into the parking lot. “Shit,” Nick said.

“Look at that,” Sara said, clearly grabbing for a diversion. “Dangerous driving.”

The driver’s door opened slowly and Aurelie Board slid her feet into blurry waves of heat rising from the ground. Nick said, ” Shit.”

Sarah elbowed him. “You already said that. Why are you so late?, she called to her sister.

“Go easy,” Nick said. “Aurelie’s usually prompt. Something she couldn’t get out of must have kept her.”

“Sometimes I think you get sucked in because she’s little and looks helpless. you’re always making excuses for her.” Sarah pinched up her mouth.

Aurelie had the same pointy nose as Sarah, that’s where the similarities almost ended. “There you are,” she said loudly. “Don’t start on me. Just don’t start.”

Half a foot shorter than her sister, Aurelie’s hair was as dark as Sarah’s would be if she didn’t use bleach.

Aurelie leaned back into the car and called, “Hoover, get out here.” A Bouvier, around 120 pounds, black with a white blaze on his chest, lumbered to the ground like a small bear. He definitely outweighed his boss.

Nick tried not to grimace at Aurelie’s straw hat, the brim tipped up all the way around. He loved looking at her and had to make sure he wasn’t too obvious. She had a wide, soft mouth that looked as if a smile was never far away. Her eyebrows were upswept like Sarah’s and very dark. She sparkled. She melted people just with her presence. And Aurelie might be short but she wasn’t exactly “little,” not entirely.

He pulled himself together. “Let’s get on with it, shall we?, “I’ve been at Poke Around,” she said. “I came as fast as I could.” A passing truck honked and she put her fingers in her ears.

A gift boutique, Poke Around occupied the conservatory in the original Oakdale Mansion…

 

Testing Miss Toogood

Testing Miss Toogood

Mira
March 1, 2005
ISBN-10: 0778321487
ISBN-13: 978-0778321484

Fleur Toogood is beautiful, opinionated and has a disastrous inclination to speak her mind. And she refuses to marry without love. But as the most eligible of Reverend Toogood’s five daughters, she has been charged with making a brilliant match that will improve her family’s fortune. So to appease her father, she agrees to be escorted around London by Lord Dominic Elliot.

But Lord Dominic proves to be a most arrogant and secretive chaperon. He takes his duties toward her very seriously, though he shows little interest in her otherwise. Worse, he insists on giving the most annoying advice—advice she doesn’t need because she has devised The List, questions designed to assess a male’s potential as a satisfactory husband, knowing no man can meet her high standards. But as she is introduced to one eligible gentleman after another, it becomes painfully clear—the only man who scores high enough to interest her is Dominic himself.

Out of Print

Read an Excerpt

Testing Miss Toogood – Excerpt

Testing Miss Toogood

Mira
March 1, 2005
ISBN-10: 0778321487
ISBN-13: 978-0778321484

Covent Garden London, 1815

Success…or failure…depended on this, on what happened now, here, in a shabby park in one of London’s sleaziest districts.

He reached a hedge, pushed through an overgrown gap that passed as a gateway and hurried inside. He saw her. A girl huddled in the middle of a pathway where what moon there was played hide-and-seek and picked her out for any interested eye to see.

Running, he hissed, "It’s all right. You have nothing to fear. Get off the path. Sit on the bench over there—by the bushes."

"I’d rather stand, sir…father."

"Keep your voice down, I beg of you. They call me Brother Juste and I insist we sit. We could be too easily spotted standing here." He caught her by the arm and rushed her along. She kept quiet and didn’t shrink from him. His real name was Lord Dominic Elliot, but the disguise served him well.

The girl’s courage impressed him. He hadn’t been sure she’d come to meet a stranger in this deserted place after sun-set. From what he could make out, she was young, wholesome and simply dressed.

Jane Weller, a desperate servant wrongly dismissed from her place, sped along at his side, her breath coming in frightened gasps, until she plopped down on the stone seat he’d indicated. Tucked in the deep shadows of tall laurel bushes, anyone there would be all but invisible. He followed, his habit flowing around his feet, the rough brown wool heavy with moisture from the fog.

"I’d best be quick," Jane said. "I want to get back." She sat down, crossed her booted feet, wrapped a prim dark coat tightly about her and held it together at the neck. She bowed her head and an unadorned bonnet hid her face completely, not that there was much to see in this light, even if he had become accustomed to getting around very well in darkness.

She touched her chin and drew in a sharp breath.

"Are you hurt?" he asked.

Miss Weller shook her head, no, and muttered something inaudible.

Laughter carried on the heavy air, drunken voices bellowed and Jane muffled a cry with her hands and looked up at him. He saw her face better then, her eyes glittering up at him.

"Hush," he said, sitting beside her but with an appropriate distance between them. "You are safe with me, I promise." Acrid smoke from too many chimneys to imagine stung the eyes.

A long walk from ancient St. Mary’s Church in Pearl Lane had given him time to think about the most efficient way to deal with the best, possibly the only, chance he might get to solve a most disturbing mystery before it was too late.

"I shall accompany you home to your rooms," he told Jane. "No harm shall come to you. Now, tell me your story." He already knew most of it, as reported by the son of her former employers while that young man wallowed in his cups at a certain gentlemen’s club.

"It’s not true what my mistress said." The girl’s voice wobbled but she didn’t cry. A brave one, this. "I didn’t stay out all night with my young man—last Thursday that would be—I didn’t. I don’t have a young man. I was taken, that’s what I was, taken. Kidnapped. And I know why."

You do? "And why would that be?" He knew very well but couldn’t imagine how Jane Weller would have any idea why she was abducted in Hyde Park—opposite her employers’ mansion—and spirited away.

"The gentleman thought I was Miss Victoria. On account of I was wearing one of her cloaks. She gave it to me," she added hurriedly. "Miss Victoria gets tired of her things and likes to give them away. It was her he wanted—he said as much when he was so angry at seeing he’d got a nobody for all his trouble."

The Victoria she spoke of was Victoria Crewe-Burns whose wealthy family was famous for, among other products, Crewe-Burns Serviceable Stockings—a mainstay of the working classes. There had been a time when Vicky’s name had been linked to that of Dominic’s brother, Nathan.

"You’re sure of this, Miss Weller?" He kept his voice low.

She whispered in return, "Oh, yes. The man who took me never said a word till I was in that house of his." He noted she spoke quite well and tucked the fact away in case it might be useful to remember. "Look," she continued, "I will help you try to find this man. I want to because I think he’ll hurt someone one day if he isn’t caught. But they watch you at that rooming house where I’m staying and if I’m too late back someone will say things about me and I’ll be out on the street again. I don’t know if I could find another place as cheap."

He needed so much more from her. "Did you actually see this man’s face?" Surely a good description would be too much to hope for.

"Yes and no."

Waiting for her to go on took almost more patience than he had.

"A painted face, that’s what he had. He frightened me so, his face white like some ladies used to have, all stiff and hard from the stuff he’d spread on. And a little red mouth painted on and eyebrows almost up to his wig. A white wig it was, and white powder on his eyelashes so his eyes looked pink and nasty."

The next answer was expected but he asked the question anyway. "Would you know him if you saw him again?"

She didn’t laugh or say no immediately. "I don’t know. There was something about him—a feeling he gave me. He pushed me down and kicked me. He said I was a waste of time."

"I’m sorry." And he was furious. "Did you feel as if you’d met him before?"

"Oh, no." She shook her head vehemently. "I couldn’t have. No. But when I say he gave me a funny feeling, I don’t just mean the scared feeling. I wouldn’t know his face unless he was painted the same way, of course, but…I don’t know, I probably couldn’t recognize him. He said he’s a master of disguises so I suppose that means he changes how he looks." She looked up at him. "I’m sorry I’m not more help."

"You are a great deal of help." He must make sure they would meet again and soon. The thought of not being able to find her after tonight sent panic into his heart. "You cannot have a great deal of money."

She tossed her head and averted her face from him. "I know how to look after myself. I’ll do well enough."

"How long can you manage without a position?"

Miss Weller fiddled with the neck of her coat. "Long enough."

"Let me give you some money."

"No, thank you." She stood up and he heard her rapid breathing. "I shall find a place soon enough. I must."

"You sound desperate," he said gently. "If you have enough money to manage, why must you find a place soon?"

"Because—because I must, that’s all. Please, I wish I could be more useful but I’m going to that house now."

"Fair enough." He rose and offered her his arm. Jane Weller got up and stood beside him, ignoring his arm. "Very well, let us get you home but there’s something I want you to do tomorrow morning."

Page 2 of 512345