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A Cold Day in Hell – Excerpt

A Cold Day in Hell

Harlequin Mira
November 15, 2012
Amazon ASIN: B009NEMGMO
ISBN-13: 9781460308523

Buy at Amazon.com Buy at BN.com Buy at Kobo.com Buy at Sony Reader Store Buy at iTunes.com

Eileen Moggeridge slammed the door of her van and locked it, keeping her right hand on the gun she carried in a jacket pocket.

Tonight she had met with someone she thought she would never see again. He had stood in this parking lot, nodding toward Poke Around, her gift shop, with a smile on his face. “I’m happy for you, Eileen. I only ever wanted the best for you—and Aaron.” And the smile was sad, his expression guilty, apologetic, humble.

As far as she could remember, he’d never regretted a thing he did and she didn’t believe he’d changed.

He wanted something, and it wasn’t an opportunity to take back responsibility for the family that was no longer his.

Chuck Moggeridge had left her, and Pointe Judah, almost two years ago. There had been talk about another woman but Eileen had not known who that was, didn’t want to know, didn’t care. Chuck had beaten her one time too many and she still hated herself for not getting rid of him a lot sooner. In the end, her so-called husband had barely beaten Eileen to a divorce lawyer.

Now he was back.

He had called from his car in the parking lot, asked her to talk to him, “Tell me about Aaron. Just for a couple of minutes. He’s my son as well as yours.

His car had been parked only slots away from hers in the Oakdale Mansion Center lot, but Chuck didn’t know what she drove anymore. Or he hadn’t, but did now. Eileen had walked to her van and seen him hurry toward her. She got quickly behind the wheel, locked the doors and opened her window a crack.

For too long they had looked at each other.

Strange how two people who had made a life together, made a child together, could become strangers.

He didn’t ask to get into the van with her, or for her to go somewhere with him. At least he knew better than that—tonight. Eileen didn’t trust him not to push for more, not when his parting words had been, “I know my responsibilities. You should have let me know he was in rehab. Aaron’s had a rough time and he needs his father. It’s good to be back so I can make things right.

Lies. Mostly lies.

How had Chuck found out about Aaron’s problems with alcohol? They weren’t an issue anymore. Aaron had gone through rehab—quietly—although she didn’t fool herself that no-one knew— and he was just fine. When he had needed Chuck, the man hadn’t been around and now she wanted things to stay the way they were.

She had met Angel DeAngelo—his first name was really, Christian—through his nephew Sonny, and Aaron, and he had stepped up to give masculine support when needed. Eileen liked him—a lot. Sonny wasn’t nearly as high on her list. Surly and silent around her, he was an Aaron-rescue. Aaron had a history of championing misfits and he had let her know it was he who encouraged the friendship between two guys the other kids avoided.

She held the gun so tight her fingers ached.

The thought of being afraid of Chuck might not be new, but she hadn’t worried about it since he made a complete break. His timing for coming back couldn’t be worse. She raised her face, grateful for the fine moisture on her skin.

If she didn’t get back inside the shop, Angel would arrive before her and ask where she’d been. She wasn’t ready to tell him.

They had moved slowly together, each of them scalded by past experience, but Eileen wanted them to have a chance at something more, and she thought he did, too—if he could ever stop thinking of her as his good buddy. Most afternoons, around closing time, he stopped by for coffee but their conversations mostly revolved around Aaron and Sonny.

Damn Chuck for showing up now. He shouldn’t scare her, but he did.

The rain had eased off but the evening remained damp, the air heavy. Eileen hurried away from her van toward the lighted windows of Poke Around. The shop was in what had once been the conservatory at the beautiful old Oakdale Mansion and she had strung white icicle lights around the roof and outlined the windows with twinkling multi-colored strands.

Chuck’s call came only moments after Eileen’s employee, Suky-Jo, had left. They had been stock-taking—not so easy when the shop was crammed with Holiday merchandise. All but low lights were off in the patisserie and the new salon that flanked her place. Old friends ran the salon and Eileen had an investment in that, too.

The business was hers; at last.

Eileen could not get over the excitement she felt whenever she looked at the shop. Her shop. She had come a long way from being Chuck’s mostly ignored wife, the woman who belonged at home, who mustn’t ask for anything, so got nothing.

Angel’s offices were also in the Oakdale Mansion Center. He was Operations Manager for a construction firm and worked late. Then he liked to walk over and pick her up. Within the hour he’d be at the shop door. She wanted to see him. In the months since they had started their tentative relationship, her need to be with him grew daily.

They circled each other and knew that’s what they were doing. Eileen wondered how much longer Angel would be satisfied with being her close friend. She couldn’t face the question tonight.

Her cell phone rang in her purse and when she looked at the readout she saw Angel’s number.

“Hi,” she said, smiling to herself.

“Where are you?”

Eileen frowned and slowed her pace. “Where I almost always am.”

He took his time to respond. “And that is?”

“You’re not interrogating a suspect in your former life.” He admitted to several years’ service as an ATF (alcohol, tobacco and firearms) agent but wouldn’t discuss what he’d done before that. “I’m at the shop,” she said. Or she soon would be.

“No you’re not. What’s going on?”

Eileen’s scalp prickled. She felt colder than she should on a humid night. He’d never spoken to her sharply like that. He had no right to. Feet from the sidewalk, she stopped and stared at the shop. Angel stood inside the door, staring out, his face set, hard and cold, the way she’d seen it several times before, but never when he was speaking to her.

He had his own key.

In a way, since Aaron and Sonny met, they had almost become a family—with some notable things missing.

His tone turned her stomach. It also made her angry. “What do you think is going on, Christian?” She winced. Her habit of calling him Christian when she was either really happy or really unhappy with him, gave her away every time.

He kept the phone at his ear but didn’t say anything. So far he didn’t know she was only yards away and staring at him.

Angel was one of those men who took up a lot of space, When he walked into a room, there was a subtle change in the atmosphere. People looked at him, and conversation faded. It happened, that was all, and if he didn’t feel watched, he ought to.

Eileen crossed her arms. The open line between them unnerved her. She tapped a hand at her throat. When she and Angel had met, she and Matt Boudreaux, the local Police Chief, had seemed to be moving toward a serious relationship. But Matt had been taking his sweet time, often treating her as if they’d been married for years and she shouldn’t mind a broken date, and another, and another. Eileen’s patience ran out. She would always love Matt in a certain way, but Angel’s attention had eventually distracted her.

Sometimes she thought Angel didn’t trust that it was over between her and Matt. He’d never made a romantic move but he did give the impression that she was his property.

Suddenly, Angel slipped his phone into the breast pocket of his dark blue shirt and stood with his big arms spread. He gripped the door frame on either side. Those arms and shoulders weren’t just big, they were massive. She thought about his arms, and the way they moved—too often. Just touching him messed with her mind.

Eileen put her own phone away. She had about thirty seconds to see his face, his usually cool gray eyes, before she approached the door and he saw her.

She paused again. Cool didn’t have anything to do with his face now. Emotions, none of them anything Eileen wanted to explore, passed over his features. She could see a white line around his compressed lips. Below his rolled up sleeves, the muscles and tendons in his arms stood out. He squeezed the door frame.

That’s enough. Where does he think I am? Or maybe that should be, who does he think I’m with? She hated the thought because playing the field wasn’t her style.

She arrived in front of him and they stared, eye-to eye, through the glass. He wore his dark blond hair short and at the moment it stuck up as if he’d pushed at it. He had thicker, darker eyelashes than a man should have and he lowered them to half-mast so he could fix his gaze on her face.

Before she could find her keys, he swept open the door and stood back.

Eileen walked inside and he locked up behind her.

“You’re early,” she said.

“So you thought you had more time to get back before I found out you’d left?


“Hey, buddy.” She walked to the back of the store where a soft red velvet couch stood, and threw down her purse. “You’re out of line. I’m not having a wonderful evening and I don’t need you to make it worse. I had to step out and deal with something. That’s all, and I don’t have to explain every move I make to you. Can I get you an espresso, or a glass of wine—or a beer?”

“No.”

She turned toward him and found that in his naturally uncanny manner, he’d closed the space between them soundlessly. Although she was a tall woman, she was forced to look up at him.

“A woman doesn’t belong out there alone, in the dark,” he told her. When he narrowed his gray eyes they became almost black. “It probably used to be that folks didn’t have to lock their doors around here, or worry about crime. Times have changed.”

“I walked to my van. Then I walked back from my van when I’d finished my business. Really, I do appreciate your concern.” She tried a smile but his expression didn’t change. “As I said, thanks, but I’m a big girl.”

“That depends on what you mean by, big girl.”

There would be no discussion about what he thought it meant.

Angel rubbed his face. “I tried to check on Sonny but his cell’s off. You know it bothers me when he does that.”

She sympathized with his worry about his nephew. Sonny had come to Pointe Judah because he needed a strong hand if he wasn’t going to end up in jail. “He and Aaron were out riding bikes,” she said. “You know how that goes. They always go farther then they say they will.”

“That’s fine for Aaron,” Angel said. “Sonny’s got limits. He’s got to be where I can reach him at all times.”

“He’s a good kid. You’re too hard on him.” Sonny needed a firm hand but there was something under the tough facade that made her want to gather him in and make him feel cared about. She took out her phone again and placed a call.

Angel moved closer, so close she could feel him. “You calling Aaron?”

She nodded. Pick up the phone, Aaron.

“So Aaron’s gone dark, too?”

“Don’t put it like that,” Eileen said. “They’ll check in just as soon as they’re close to home. You’ve got them scared stiff.”

He tapped his chest with spread fingertips. “Me? Crap, I’m a pussycat. I care, is all.”

She believed the last bit but he was no pussycat. “Sonny’s likely to stop by my place before he goes home. He likes the food. I’ll make sure he gets back in one piece.”

The following silence unnerved Eileen. She took a deep breath and put the phone away again.

“Eileen,” Angel said, his voice softening, a little raspy. “I’m sorry I came on too strong. I was worried.”

She avoided looking at him. “Forget it.”

“I will when you do. You’re mad.”

“No. Edgy is all.”

He put a hand beneath her hair and held the back of her neck. “You said you weren’t worried.”

Eileen held quite still. Her scalp tightened and she felt as if a subtle breeze lifted her hair. They might be trying to pretend they had no physical effect on each other, but it was a lie.

If she told Angel about Chuck, how would he react? He’d never understand that she couldn’t just brush it off. “I’m not worried,” she told Angel. He rubbed her neck and she shivered. When she glanced at him, he was frowning.

“Is there anything you’re not telling me?” he said.

She looked at the floor.

“Eileen?”

“Leave it. When I can talk about it, I will.”

He took her by the hand and led her into the stockroom. Once there, he turned her to face him and held her shoulders. “Not good enough. “What is it?”

She kept her gaze on his chest.

“C’mon,” he said quietly. “Don’t do this to me.” He kissed her cheek, pushed her hair away from her left ear and stroked his thumb across it.

“Stop it,” Eileen said, without conviction. He had bad timing, choosing tonight to make moves on her.

“I’d rather not stop.” He pulled her against him. “I’ve already waited too long.”

“Christian, don’t.” He was a big man. If he decided to hold you, you were held.

“Sorry—I think we both need a little warmth sometimes.” He stepped back at once, but still held her arms and made it uncomfortable to look at him. It would be more uncomfortable to look away. “You’ve got a gun in your pocket,” he said.

She felt her face heat up. “Yes, I have.”

“I didn’t know you owned one.”

“You’re the one who’s always saying that people in quiet places like Pointe Judah should take precautions.”

His fingers tightened on her arms. “Do you carry all the time?”

This was the problem when you hung around with a man who had interrogated people for a living. “No.”

“You keep a gun in the shop?”

She tried to wrench away but he didn’t let her go. “Yes. Are we done now?”

“And tonight you decided you needed to be armed when you went out to do this business in your van you talk about?”

Eileen looked him in the eye. She felt the prickle of tears and blinked several times. “This conversation is over.”

“I don’t think so.”

“Leave it, okay? Just leave it.” Chuck had driven away. What if he’d come back and was skulking around outside, hoping she’d leave on her own?

“I’m sorry I’m so snappy,” she said.

“Me, too.” He looked at her mouth. “Do you want me to leave?”

She shook her head. He was sending her messages he’d kept under wraps before. Or perhaps she subconsciously wanted that to be true.

“You sure you don’t want to tell me what’s on your mind?” he said.

She wasn’t sure, but she’d wait anyway.

“Eileen, would this be a bad time to talk about us, too?”

He’d done a great job of behaving like Aaron’s strong, benevolent uncle and her friend. And he’d done the things a woman wished for when she wanted to know a man without getting in too deep.

He dropped his hands.

“No it’s not a bad time,” she told him, lying. She laughed a little. “We are so grown-up about things. I’m proud of us. We should get a prize for being reasonable.” And if she concentrated on something else, she wouldn’t keep trying to figure out what Chuck might or might not plan to do.

“As soon as we’re sure the boys are at your place, why don’t we go to The Boardroom for a drink,” Angel said. “And something to eat. The music’s good. We might even dance.”

“Dance? You told me you can’t dance.” Going to a club didn’t appeal to much but she said, “Yes. Looks like Delia and Sarah Board have a success on their hands with that place.” He was asking her out on a date. They’d had meals together before, in places like Ona’s, but there had never been any planned dates.

Located in the middle of Pointe Judah, The Boardroom had been open just a few months. It revved up when the town revved down and there was nothing else like it around.

Delia owned a cosmetics firm with offices and labs around the country but liked living in Point Judah. Her daughter, Sarah, was a chemist at the local labs and the club had been her idea.

Eileen hitched her bag over her shoulder and turned out the lights in the stockroom. “I’ve got extra help coming in tomorrow and I need it. It’s easy enough to get part-time people but I need someone full-time.”

“You’re working too hard,” Angel said. “Why don’t you put the gun in your purse if you’re going to keep on carrying the thing. It could fall out of your pocket.”

She did as he suggested without comment.

“Give me a couple more minutes,” Angel said. “If you don’t want to say anything, at least listen.”

In the darkness, piles of boxes loomed all around and unpacked merchandise was piled high on tables. Much of the stuff on the tables sparkled, even in the gloom. Eileen glanced at the high windows but all she saw was rain speckles heavy enough to make the glass look pebbled in the glow of the icicle lights at the roofline.

“Eileen?”

“Okay. Sorry I got distracted.”

“Something’s wrong, something you’re not telling me.”

When he nailed her like this she felt trapped. “And I told you I’ll talk about it when I can.”

“What’s changed?” he said, ever persistent. “If there’s something to be worried about I need to know what it is or I can’t help.”

“There’s nothing to worry about.” Yet. And probably wouldn’t be. “Angel, has Sonny done jail time?”

A silence followed and went on so long she wished she’d kept her mouth shut.

“No, he hasn’t,” Angel said, opening the door again. “What made you think he had?”

“Oh, forget I said anything. He’s a lot more mature than Aaron and sometimes I worry there could be things Aaron doesn’t need to know yet, that’s all.”

Angel propped himself in the doorway. Behind him, colored lighted blinked on and off on display trees in the shop. “How did you make the leap from Sonny being mature to his having done jail time?” Angel asked.

She felt ashamed, and judgmental. “He was sent to you for some reason. You told me he needed extra discipline.”

“I said he needed a man’s hand, a man’s guidance. He doesn’t have a father.”

Like Aaron didn’t have a father, or hadn’t. And Eileen wanted Chuck out of town again, now.

“Look,” Angel said. “I don’t want to say this but I’ve got to. You give me the impression you think Sonny’s no good for Aaron. You’ve pegged Sonny as a bad boy.”

“No!” Was she that transparent? “Aaron got in his own trouble. He’s not perfect.” She hadn’t told him how silently belligerent Sonny often was with her.

“But Aaron was just acting out and he did it quietly. You told me that and I believe you. He got muddled up after his father left. Finn told me all about it. He tried to fill in but Aaron got the idea it was his fault his dad ducked out.”

Finn Duhon was Eileen’s brother. His wife, Emma, used to own Poke Around but sold it to Eileen when she came into money from the sale of the Duhon family home. Finn had insisted she take all the proceeds because he didn’t need them. That money had changed Eileen’s life. Finn also owned the construction company Angel worked for.

“Say something,” Angel said.

She thought she saw movement outside the front windows of the shop. Her heart missed a beat, and another, then pounded rapidly. She was getting too jumpy. “Leave it, I said,” she told him, hearing her voice rise. “I can’t do this now. You’re pulling me apart like you’re suspicious of everything I say. Let me be.”

“Eileen, please—”

“No. I’d better go home on my own. I’m not good company.”

“I’m coming with you.” He reached for her but she tried to evade him. Angel caught her as she backed into a file cabinet.. “Hold it,” he said quietly.

She began to shake and she had to stop it. Some things had to be dealt with on her own. “I’m fine,” she told him. “I’m just overworked and kind of worried.”

“You’re not fine,” he said. He pulled her against him. For an instant she resisted, but then he felt her soften and lean into him. “You’re making too many excuses and you’re trembling. If I’m not scaring you to death, something else is. Now tell me because I won’t quit asking until you do.”

She wanted to close her eyes, breath him in, hold on tight. How many times had she dreamed about this moment? Now she couldn’t relax and enjoy it.

The phone in his pocket rang and he switched it off.

“That could be Sonny,” she said.

“We’re going back to your place now. I’ll deal with him when I get there. Hold my hand. You’re important to me, let me be here for you.” He held her hand and led her into the shop.

Nobody had ever told her such things, and he said them without pushing for anything more intimate?

Hammering on the front door made her jump so hard her teeth ground together.

“It’s okay,” Angel said, but he shoved her behind him and a gun appeared in his hand. “Hell, will you look at this?”

He holstered his weapon and strode to open the door.

Sonny just about fell inside. Drenched, covered with mud and, unmistakably, smeared with blood, he staggered and Angel stopped him from tripping.

“What’s the matter?” Angel said.

Eileen rushed to him. “Where’s Aaron?”

“I gotta get back,” Sonny said, dragging in breaths, not looking at Eileen. “You gotta come with me, Angel.” He looked into Angel’s face, a hard stare as if he was sending a silent message.

“Where’s Aaron?” Eileen felt herself losing it. “Sonny—”

“Hush,” Angel said, but his face wasn’t expressionless now.

“It’s all my fault,” Sonny said. “I shouldn’t have been . . . I went where I shouldn’t have, and talked to the wrong people. They kind of dared me. I got Aaron and me into trouble. It’s bad.” His big, dark eyes stretched wide and she could feel his fear. “Angel, do you think someone—”

“Let’s go,” Angel said.

“Tell me where Aaron is?” Eileen begged.

“Oh, God,” Sonny moaned, hanging his head. “He’s in the swamp. North of town. I know how to get back. Chuzah made sure. I hope he made sure. He sent me in his—er—car.”

“Stop it,” Angel said. “Calm down, both of you. Chuzah is?”

Sonny looked as if he could cry. “Um, a doctor.”

“Oh, thank God,” Eileen said.

“In the swamp?” Angel said. “This doctor just happened by, huh?”

“He lives there.”

“Aaron hurt himself?” Eileen said.

“No, someone else . . .” Sonny swallowed. “He got hurt.”

“But there’s a doctor there. A general practitioner?”

Angel pushed them both through the door and locked it behind him. “Eileen, we’ll have to take your van. My truck’s at home.”

“I’ve got to drive Chuzah’s vehicle back,” Sonny said. “I’m afraid he’d do something awful to me if I didn’t get his car back. I know the way. Follow me.”

Angel grabbed Sonny’s arm and spun him around. “What do you mean, something awful?”

“Oh,” Sonny said. “He’s a root doctor.”

Eileen felt faint. She held Angel’s sleeve. “We need a real doctor. I’ll get on to Mitch Halpern. And let’s call Matt—”

“No,” Sonny said. “Chuzah knows about other medical stuff. If we show up with some new guy he doesn’t expect, he won’t let us find him.”

“You said you knew the way,” Angel said.

Sonny scrubbed at his oiled scalp. “Do what I’m tellin’ you. Please. I know how to get to where there’ll be someone waiting to guide us in.”

To the right, at the curb, was a dark green vintage Morgan sports car. Again, all Eileen could do was stare.

“This root doctor threatened you,” Angel said.

“Well . . . he was nice about it.”

“I’m calling Matt now,” Eileen said. “Some voodoo practitioner has kidnapped my son.”

“Anything could happen if you call the law,” Sonny said, with his familiar hard stare. The street-wise kid from Brooklyn was back. “I know Aaron’s okay with Chuzah. He helped us.”

“That isn’t his Morgan, is it?” Angel said.

“Uh, huh. He’s really weird.”

“And you left Aaron alone with him?” Eileen said.

Sonny broke away and hurried toward the driver’s door on the Morgan. “He saved Aaron’s life,” he said and climbed in, slamming and locking the door behind him.

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A Grave Mistake – Excerpt

A Grave Mistake

Harlequin Mira
November 15, 2012
Amazon ASIN: B009NEMGT2
ISBN-13: 978-0778323532

Buy at Amazon Buy at Barnes and Noble Buy at iTunes

Toussaint, Louisiana.

Jilly Gable had a man to confront. Maybe this time Guy Gautreaux would keep his big mouth shut and let her finish what she had to say before he piled in and told her what to do and why, and reminded her of his earlier warning that the reappearance of her long lost mother could be bad news.

Guy had trouble with the concept that a woman could have a change of heart after thirty years of not giving a damn about a person. He didn’t believe people changed, he thought that as years went by they became more of what they had always been. In this case, once a bad mother, eventually a really bad mother.

Jilly pulled her aging VW Beetle into the forecourt at Homer Devol’s gas station—the last gas station on the way out of the town of Toussaint, and first on the way in, depending on if you were going or coming and which side of the sign you looked at.

Homer usually went to pick his granddaughter up from school in the afternoon, leaving Guy to tend the gas station and the convenience store beyond, where a string of colored lights outlined the roof. The lights stayed on all day and into the evening, all year.

Pots of showy geraniums hung beneath the eaves with ivy trailing to the ground.

Jilly looked around. Nothing on two legs moved. With her head out of the window she called, "Homer! Guy!" then she screwed up her eyes and listened. No response. She looked quickly toward the road. All day she’d had a sick sensation that she was being followed, watched. Last night she had got a warning, even if it wasn’t direct, that someone was watching her movements. Who better to advise her than Guy, a New Orleans Police Department homicide detective on extended leave?

Way to the left, closer to the bayou, Homer’s split timber house stood on stilts with its gallery facing the bayou across the sloping back lawn.

She got out of the lime green Beetle and went through the useless exercise of trying to take in a breath. Hot didn’t cover it. Heat eddies wavered above the burned out grass and did their shaky dance on tops of the roofs. From where she was she could see cypress trees crouching, totally still, over Bayou Teche. Beards of Spanish Moss hung from branches like they were painted there, and the pea-green surface of the bayou might have been set-up jello. Even the gators would be sleeping now.

She reached behind her seat and hauled out several bakery boxes tied together with string. If she didn’t get them inside fast, the contents would be gooey puddles. Jilly owned All Tarted Up, Flakiest Pastry In Town, one of Toussaint’s favorite gathering places. Her brother, Joe—a lawyer—had been her partner until his marriage the previous year. She’d been able to assume the loans and she loved having the business to herself.

Guy’s beat up gray Pontiac hugged a slice of shade beside the store, but she saw no sign of the man, either in the gas station or the store. He didn’t live out here and mostly stayed away from the house.

A walk toward the bayou ended her search. He stood on the dock, a cell phone clamped to his ear, his arms crossed, and his face pointing away from her.

A door slid open behind her and she jumped, swung around and barely kept her balance. Homer’s fish boiling operations were housed in this other building, one you didn’t see until you got close to the bayou. Ozaire Dupre walked out and turned to slide the doors shut, but not before the dense smell of boiling fish rushed free. Ozaire, caretaker at the church, man of many schemes, also helped out with Homer’s boiling and drove the giant pots of fish, and sometimes vats of his part-time boss’s own special gumbo, to backyard barbeques or any event looking for real Louisiana cooking.

Ozaire saw Jilly and frowned, shook his big, shaved head dolefully, "Better you keep me company today, girl. That one down there—he’s one big, black cloud, him." Ozaire fooled some people with his short, thick , slow-moving body. In fact the man’s strength was legendary in the area, and his speed if he chose to hurry.

A rangy, part-grown black mutt loped around his legs but soon left to investigate Jilly.

"You say that every time I come," Jilly pointed out, scratching the dog’s velvet head. "Who’s this good looking fella?"

"That Guy Gautreaux’s a big, black cloud all the time, that’s why I say it." Ozaire looked smug with himself. His scalp shone in the sunlight and sweat ran down the sides of his round face and heavy neck. "Never got nuthin’ good to say. I reckon he’s got a curse on him. Bad luck boy, that one."

"You should be more careful what you say, you," Jilly told Ozaire. "A man could get in trouble for saying things like that."

"Get on. I’m just sayin’ it like it is. Last woman that boy got close to is in a cemetery."

Last year Guy’s longtime girlfriend had been murdered in New Orleans. He blamed himself.

"Later," Jilly said, exasperated. She held out the boxes. "We had extra at the bakery. They’re fresh. Put them in the store case for Homer to sell."

Ozaire took the load from her and gave a rare grin. "An’ I thought you was bringin’ me a treat."

Jilly wagged a finger at him. A bug flew into her eye and she dealt with it, then pointed at him again. "You get one. I’ve counted those pastries, I’ll count them again when I come back up. There better be no more than one gone." Give the man the chance and he’d be hauling the stuff off to sell to whoever was using the church hall at St. Cécil’s.

"That there’s a dog what’s a prize, that’s what he is," Ozaire said, as if the topic had never been pastries. "Can’t keep ‘im, no sir. My Lil says four dogs is enough. But this guy’s too good, got too much character to drop him at the pound and have ‘em put him down in a couple of days."

Jilly had been the recipient of Ozaire’s earlier attempts to place strays. "Hope you find a home for him," she said. The man’s love of dogs made her feel more kindly toward him.

"Reckon I have," Ozaire said. "With your prickly friend, huh? Put in a good word, huh? For the dog’s sake, and for that miserable son-of . . ." He let the rest trail off.

Jilly shook her head. "You’re too hard on Guy," she told him, and walked toward the dock. She turned and walked backward a few paces. "I’m going to check on the pastries, mind."

Jilly hurried downhill.

Guy bent to push off one of the rental boats. A couple of guys with fishing gear started the outboard and phut-phutted into the middle of the channel. With the phone still clamped to his ear, Guy stood up and saw Jilly. He gave her a brief wave and started meandering back along the dock. They’d met the previous year when an investigation brought him to Toussaint and he’d become her friend, her best buddy, and she needed to talk openly with him about what was on her mind. He had never attempted to turn their relationship into something deeper but Jilly had seen the hot looks he quickly hid—she wasn’t the only one frustrated by the sexless hours they spent together.

"Take your sweet time," Jilly muttered. How could a man walk that slowly? "Just let me squirm as long as possible." Do I admit I’m scared and I need to tell you about it? If she did, he’d probably jump all over her, say she was putting herself in danger. Get out of the situation. End of discussion.

Guy stood still, staring up at her, and continued his conversation. After the death of the woman he had loved he refused to go back to NOPD, but they were holding a place for him. Guy was a darn good detective. Meanwhile, Homer had needed someone reliable and asked Guy if he’d work at his place—just to fill the time until he moved on. Guy accepted the job and give it his all. He seemed grateful to Homer and to treat his own place at the station as a trust, even though Jilly knew he had enough money to live on if he wanted to hang around his rented house and do nothing until he decided on his next steps.

Jilly didn’t want Guy to leave his haven in Toussaint, even though he had made it plain he didn’t intend to stay for good.

He stuck the phone back on his belt and speeded up. A tall, rangy man, in faded-out jeans and a navy T-shirt with holes in it, he could cover the ground quickly when it suited him. He met Jilly before she could put a foot on the dock.

She looked up at him, at his unreadable, almost black eyes, and wished she hadn’t come. Ozaire hadn’t been joking about the cloud.

"I wasn’t expectin’ you," he said and winced. He almost always said the wrong thing to Jilly, but not because he didn’t want to tell her how he felt each time he saw her. He guessed he’d never be polished.

"I’m not staying," Jilly said. Not when he looked as if he wished she was somewhere else and he couldn’t even manage to crack a welcoming smile.

He cocked his head to one side and took off his straw Stetson, held it by the fraying brim. "You must have had somethin’ on your mind," he said. "No reason to come this way otherwise." And he wished she’d say something he’d really like to hear, like her creep of a mother had packed up and left town again.

"You can make a person feel pretty unwelcome, Guy." She didn’t dare say it hurt her when he behaved as if she was stranger with bad timing.

He ran a deeply tanned forearm over his brow, blinking slowly.

You got used to a man’s little mannerisms, got to like them even. Next he’d rake his fingers through dishwater blond hair. Yep, that’s what he did.

"Guy, can I ask your honest opinion about something?"

He swallowed and rubbed the flat of his right hand back and forth on his chest. Jilly, you can ask me anything. If I was any kind of a man, I’d get over what I can’t change and find a way to be what you need, what you want me to be. "Ask. Maybe I can be useful—maybe not." He sickened himself. She wanted intimacy with him, the kind that never let her doubt he was on her side. But he was scared to give it to her. Stuff had happened, deadly stuff, to the only women he’d gotten really close to.

Yeah, Jilly thought, she just wanted him to reassure her that she shouldn’t question her mother’s motives for being back in Toussaint. And she’d like him to put her mind at rest about one or two things that made her antsy at old Edwards Place where Edith’s second husband, Daddy Preston, had set his wife up in lavish style. She’d dissuaded Edith from re-naming the estate, so Edwards Place it remained, but Jilly didn’t like the house much. Too big and eerie, filled with memories and sad stories Edith insisted on relating.

Then there was what happened last night. Guy could help her get through that if he had a mind to. All he had to do was tell her it was no big deal, and that he was on her side.

Jilly gave Guy a little smile, then dropped her face so he couldn’t study her so closely anymore.

Would it be so dangerous to give her a hug, he wondered. A brotherly hug to take away some of the trouble he had seen in her eyes? He wasn’t the only one who had suffered loss. Jilly’s former fiancé turned out to be a felon and destined to spend the rest of his life in the pen.

Jilly moved closer. She could feel him, always could when he was anywhere around.

"Okay," he said, and put a hand on her shoulder. She wasn’t a fragile woman, but he felt clumsy around her. "Tell me about it, cher."

It was just his way to be reserved. He cared what happened to her, the same as she did about him. "You don’t like it that Edith came back," she said.

"I never said that."

"You said she’d make trouble in the end. That sounded pretty much as if you didn’t think she should have come here."

Had he said that? "I don’t think that was exactly what I said but if you want me to take it back, I will. She’s been here awhile now and she hasn’t hurt you so far as I can tell."

"Having her show up was a shock." Jilly rested her forehead on his chest. "I’m still getting used to her. She’s not what this is about. Forgive me for being a whiny wuss, but I’m worried about something."

Guy looked down at the top of her head, at thick, blond-streaked brown hair that reached her waist. A yellow ribbon, tied a few inches from the bottom, kept it behind her shoulders.

That had been his old partner, Nat Archer, on the phone. Before long he would show up here, even though Guy had warned him previously that he didn’t want them seen together in Toussaint. From the sound of Nat’s voice, something big was going down. Ozaire was already backing a truck out and would be on his way back to St. Cécil’s within moments. Jilly ought to be gone before Nat arrived, too.

A half-grown black mutt with legs too long for its body ran back and forth and Guy made a note to call for the dog-catcher when Jilly left.

Jilly looked up at him. "I said I was worried."

"And I’m waitin’ to hear why."

"You are so tough, Guy Gautreaux. You never give an inch and you’re the only person I have to share this with."

"You have Joe. I’d have thought your brother would have the best insight on this one."

Hurt, disappointed, she tried to shrug away but he exerted a little more pressure on her shoulder and she couldn’t go anywhere. "Joe isn’t objective about this. He hates Edith. He isn’t into giving people second chances. But then, he’s my half-brother. Edith isn’t his mother."

"Joe Gable has his head screwed on right."

"Damn it, Guy." She punched his unyielding chest. "I think you’d side with anyone but me."

He shook her gently. "Could it be that Joe and I have your best interests at heart? Could that be it? Joe might remember picking you up when your dad was long gone, who the hell knows where, and the people he hired on the cheap to look after you kicked you out because he’d quit sendin’ money. You were fourteen years old. Joe might harbor a grudge against the so-called mother who walked out and left you with that angry son of a gun who fathered you, and left you just like she did."

"Yes," she said. "That could be. Sorry I bothered you. Joe and Ellie won’t be back from Italy for weeks, anyway. Forget it. It’s no big deal." Except that she felt she could choke, and wished her brother and his wife weren’t so far away.

Yes it was a big deal. He could feel that it, whatever that was, could be a very big deal. "I’ve got a clumsy mouth, you know that? When it comes to your old man, I’d gladly help Joe feed him to a gator."

The suspicious sheen on her light hazel eyes turned his stomach. If she cried, he was a gonner.

"I want to hear what you came to say and you aren’t leavin’ till you tell me," he said in a hurry.

Jilly met those black eyes of his and he made a valiant attempt to give her a reassuring smile. "Okay," she said. "No, it isn’t okay. It’s going to sound stupid. Forget it."

He put his mouth by her ear. "Listen to me, carefully. You and I will stand right here until you come clean." He was starting to get a really nasty feeling that this could chew up some time and prayed Nat would take longer than expected to arrive.

"You know there’s a live-in staff at Edwards Place?" she said.

"Only because you told me. I haven’t been invited to tea, yet."

She looked at him sideways. "There’s a new man who came from New Orleans a couple of days ago. I think he’s a bodyguard."

He didn’t know how he felt about that—if he felt anything at all. "Edith and that woman who came with her are pretty much alone. Could be they feel safer with a man watching out for them."

"When this one arrived—he came in on the chopper–I think Edith was as surprised as I was. That he was there, I mean. She knew him, even though they didn’t say much to each other. He just went to a room like he knew it was going to be there, and moved in." There was no reason to mention that Edith’s daughter-in-law, Laura Preston, threw a tantrum at the sight of the man.

"Mr. Preston flew in, too," Jilly went on. "I was glad to meet him finally."

"Is that right?" All of Guy’s nightmares were coming true. The so-called happy family wanted to draw Jilly in, to change her.

"Yes. He’s a nice man. He couldn’t have been kinder to me. He said he hoped I’d let him think of me as the daughter he never had."

"Did he?" Guy had turned ice cold. Goosebumps shot up his arms. "Is he staying at the house now?"

"He had to go back to New Orleans, but he said he’ll be spending a lot of time here. I can’t get used to the idea of someone having a helicopter pad in their garden." She held out her left arm to show him a thick gold bracelet with a diamond clasp. "I feel funny about it, but he gave me this. He gave one each to Edith and Laura, too."

Guy felt his nostrils flare. Every alarm bell went off. What could this guy possibly want from Jilly?

"Very nice," he said. "But the bodyguard stayed?"

"Yes. Daddy Preston went back alone."

Had he misheard her? "What did you call him?"

She reddened. "That’s what everyone calls him. At least, Edith and Laura do."

"So you call him what? Daddy?"

"No. I wouldn’t be comfortable—even though he did ask me to. I called him Mr. Preston."

If he had the right, he’d tell Jilly to stay away from that place. He didn’t have the right and wasn’t likely to. "You were talking about the new bodyguard. Did he seem threatening to you?"

"No-o. Not at first."

He gripped both of her arms. "Explain that."

"I think I was followed back to my place last night. It was getting dark but when I got out of my car in the driveway, a car drove by slowly."

"And you believe this was the same man who just moved into Edwards Place?"

She hadn’t been able to see his face, just that he was big. "I don’t think so. But the car had those black windows."

If he showed any sign of the sudden panic he felt, she’d be terrified. "That doesn’t mean it had anything to do with you, then."

"When I was inside, I went upstairs and looked out of a window. A man was standing close to a tree at the corner, watching my house. I could have missed him if he hadn’t drawn on a cigarette."

Guy set his back teeth. "He didn’t have to be looking at your house—and he didn’t have to have come from the car you saw being driven past."

"No. Except I just knew he was looking at my place and I could see the back of the car around the corner."

Guy put his hands on his hips and expanded his lungs. He felt an artificial calm in the air as if the world was about to split wide open and nothing but filth would pour out.

He wanted Edith Preston, and anyone remotely attached to her, out of Toussaint, preferably yesterday.

"You were right in the first place," Jilly said. "I’m overreacting. I need to head back into town."

And without a word of reassurance from me, ass that I am. "I’ll walk you to your car. Good lookin’ mutt running loose up there. I’ll call the pound."

Jilly stopped so suddenly, he’d taken two steps before he halted and looked at her. "What is it?"

"You call the pound on that dog and I’ll never speak to you again."

Shee-it. "It’s lost, Jilly. Kindest thing to do—"

"Is have it picked up and gassed? Oh, no, sir, not that sweet-natured pooch. Look at that trusting face. He’s just what you need to take your mind off yourself now and then."

Guy felt a bit wild. "I need that trampy dog?"

"You surely do, Mr. Gautreaux." She clapped her hands at the hound. "Here, boy. Here, boy. Come and meet Guy."

"Damn it, Jilly, don’t do that. I can’t have a dog."

"Sure you can. What else do you have in that miserable shotgun house of yours? Not furniture, that’s for sure."

"I like—whoa." The dog arrived, bypassed Jilly as if he’d never seen her, now or before, and landed against Guy’s middle. His long tongue lolled out of his mouth, he slobbered, and looked for all the world like he was grinning.

Guy patted the dog’s head and said "Down, boy," which the critter did. He sat beside the man like he was giving an obedience demonstration.

"Look at that, he—"

"Never mind the dog. I’ll see he’s taken care of. Let’s go sit at a picnic table. I want you to tell me what you really need from me. And you can kick me if I put my foot in my mouth."

She blinked. He was trying to reach out to her. Jilly couldn’t find the words she really wanted to say. "The first thing you need to do when you adopt a dog is to get him looked at by a vet. He’ll need all of his shots, and—"

Guy’s pinched-up expression stopped Jilly. "I said, forget the dog." He took off toward the back lawn.

Jilly followed him. She surreptitiously patted her thigh and the big pup gamboled past her to lope along at Guy’s heel. Guy walked easy, his big shoulders and arms swinging.

"I’ll get us a cold drink," Guy called back.

Something about him suggested he was in a hurry. "Not for me, thanks," Jilly said, although her mouth felt like sandpaper.

They sat, facing each other across the table, the dog a couple of feet distant with his liquid eyes firmly on Guy’s face.

"Let’s get to it," Guy said. He wasn’t going to grow a silver-tongue so he might as well wade in.

"Why don’t you like Edith?"

He gave her a long, considered look. "I like you. I don’t like anyone who hurts you. That should cover it."

"She’s changed."

"People don’t change."

Jilly hitched at the thin straps on her yellow sun dress. One of the nicest things about Edith’s mother having been part black was that Jilly had inherited skin the color of pale gold coffee. Edith had it, too. Guy’s eyes flickered toward her thumbs where they were hooked beneath her straps, then away again. Most of the time he treated her like one of the guys, but there were those moments that let her know he didn’t entirely think of her that way. Those moments tended to make her legs wobbly.

"I already told you how I felt about that, Jilly," he said. "People changing. But I understand you wanting to believe something different."

"I don’t like to disturb you, Guy, but I am going to ask you something. As long as there’s nothing to suggest Edith is some kind of criminal who came here just to ruin my life, could you try to back me up? Give me some confidence until I know, one way or the other, if she wants to make things up to me like she says she does?"

"How do you intend to find out these things?" he asked her. "One way or the other? Do you wait till you get dragged in too deep to get out? Or until the man you insisted watched you from across the street decides to wait for you inside your house one night?"

"Stop it!"

"I can’t. I can’t pull any punches. What if Sam Preston decides you could be dangerous to him?"

She crossed her arms. "I couldn’t be. That’s silly."

"You don’t know that."

"What have you got against the man? He’s married to my mother, that doesn’t make him a criminal."

And there she had him. "You’re right." He couldn’t tell her Joe Gable had already confided that he didn’t trust Edith’s supposed reason for being in Toussaint, or that he thought all the flash was to impress Jilly for some ulterior motive. Joe had speculated that Edith might know about an inheritance Jilly was about to get, a big one, only between them they couldn’t come up with a plausible benefactor. "Preston’s an antiques dealer in the Quarter, right?"

"Yes," Jilly said. "I told you that before."

"I guess you did. I can’t help thinking about the guy seeming to be stinking rich. I suppose there must be a lot of money in antiques."

"I suppose there must. Guy, all I want is for you to tell me everything’s okay," Jilly said, feeling empty. "Just be there for me while I allow it all to settle down."

"Everything’s okay," he said, his eyes burning in their sockets.

"No! Please don’t patronize me. I know what I’m asking is kind of silly, but I won’t find out what happened between my parents, not for sure, unless I can take this chance I’ve been handed and make the best of it."

He let out a long sigh. The dog, with his long fur shining like seal skin, had slid his head onto Guy’s thigh. He stood quiet and like a statue—as if he could be invisible if he tried real hard.

Guy gave the mutt a rub and that earned him a look of adoration. "I don’t want to patronize you, Jilly. I’d be a fool if I did because you’re one smart woman." Why would she want to know anything more about the senior Gables’ dysfunctional relationship?

"Could you try to be happy for me?"

"I’m happy for you."

"You’re doing it again." She blinked and her eyelashes were wet. "Repeating what I say in that flat voice you can put on. I’ve finally got what I’ve always wanted, a family. Can’t you be glad about that?"

"You’ve always had Joe. Now you’ve got a sister-in-law, too, and Nellie’s one of the best. You’ve always had a lot of people in this town. You’ve got . . ." Whoa.

"Yes? What else have I got?"

"I’m not the same as family, but I hope you think of me as a good friend," he told her rapidly, feeling the hole he’d dug open up beneath his feet. He smiled at her and reached for her hand. "Jilly, you’re the best friend I’ve got and you know it. That’s why I worry about you so much."

She smiled back. "Thank you. Forget what I said about that man. You’re probably right and he wasn’t looking at my house at all."

He’d let it go at that, even though the thought of Daddy and his expensive gift made him crazy.

Jilly got up from her bench and came around the table. She slipped her arms around his neck, pressed his face to the soft, bare rise above her bodice, and hugged him. She rested her cheek on top of his head and rocked a little.

What was he supposed to do? Be real careful, he guessed. His hands fitted around her waist and came close to touching at the back. "You are a sweet thing, Miz Gable. You’ve had too much hardship and it’s time for the good stuff to come along for you." If he had his way, it would, even if it probably shouldn’t be with him.

Her face dropped to his neck.

This could so easily go farther than he had promised himself it ever would.

Lifting her with him, he got up and swung her around before setting her feet firmly on the ground. She smiled up at him and he smiled back, tapped the end of her nose with a forefinger, tried not to stare at her mouth.

Over her head he saw a black Corvette slide past the gas station and come to a stop. The driver maneuvered until the nose of the car pointed uphill.

Ready to get away fast, Guy thought.

Jilly felt his attention move away and looked behind her. A man got out of a flashy, black car. A man with a linen fedora tipped over his eyes, and a shirt so white it made him look even darker than he was, especially where the sleeves were rolled back over his bunched forearms. His pants were dark, his tie loosened, and he carried a suit jacket tossed over his shoulder.

Guy waved, shouted, "Some wheels you’ve got there."

"Hard work and clean livin’ pay off," the other man said, walking toward them. "Less vices a man got, the better he lives and I got noo vices, Guy." The grin was as white as the shirt and he was one spectacular looker. The dimpled grooves beside his mouth only got slightly less defined when he turned serious and looked at Jilly.

"We get good cell reception down here, huh?" Guy said in the most obvious attempt at distracting someone that Jilly had ever heard.

"Yeah," the man said, nodding.

Jilly wished she could sit down again. Guns were a part of life in these parts, but this man wore a shoulder harness with the kind of ease that yelled, "cop," and she didn’t have to work hard to figure out this was someone Guy had worked with.

She didn’t like to be reminded of his other life.

The man’s eyes went from Guy to Jilly and back again. "Son-of-a-gun, Gautreaux, you never did have manners. You gonad introduce the pretty lady?"

His easy manner made Jilly grin.

"Jilly’s a friend of mine," Guy said. "She was just leavin’. Take it easy as you go, kid."

He might as well have said, get lost. A creepy sensation shot up her spine and she felt sick. "Yes, right." She backed away, perfectly aware that the newcomer was just about as uncomfortable as she was. He shot out a hand and she took it, shook it and tried not to wince.

"Nat Archer," he said. "Guy and I go way back. Like I said, he’s got lousy manners."

"Jilly Gable," she told him and waved her hand at waist level before running uphill toward her car.

"Hey, Jilly," Guy hollered. "I’ll call you later. Maybe we can get a late bite." And he had to make sure she didn’t mention Nat to anyone else.

"Not tonight," she called back. "I’ve got plans."

Body of Evidence – Excerpt

Body of Evidence

Harlequin Mira
November 15, 2012
Amazon ASIN: B009NEFGRG
ISBN-13: 978-0778322788

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

Late on a purple-sky afternoon.

On a day like this one, Emma Lachance almost remembered why she used to think Pointe Judah was the only place she would ever want to call home.

The sun wasn’t quite down yet, but frogs already set up a gruff ruckus and night-scented blooms began to waft musky sweetness on humid air.

She ran hard, harder than she needed to. Anger and hurt could drive you like that, send you pounding over the treacherous, partly finished sidewalks and gravel streets of The Willows, an abandoned retirement development. Concentrating on not turning an ankle helped keep her focused on the anger.

Emma had a husband to divorce.

Emma needed to be angry.

“You’re stupid. And you’re getting fat. I’m going to run for Governor, remember? I intend to win. You’d better make sure you don’t embarrass me, so get hold of yourself, “Orville had told her less than an hour earlier, right before he left for another “important” evening appointment which she could expect to keep him out most of the night.
Orville Lachance, Mayor of Pointe Judah, Arcadia Parish, Louisiana wanted, no, expected his wife to take whatever insults he threw at her in private and keep smiling her adoration of him in public. She had stopped trying to talk to him when he arrived home in the early, dark hours to slide into bed as if he was being thoughtful by not waking her.

Emma didn’t sleep much anymore–something to do with the enemy beside her.

He frightened her, a deep, sickening fear. From the first time he’d let her see him in a violent rage, Emma knew her husband could be a dangerous man. With every smashing blow to a television or pile of dishes, the hate in his face suggested he’d much rather beat her. In the coming weeks she must proceed carefully, gather evidence against him without making him suspicious.

The Mayor who would be Governor would not quietly allow a scandal to interfere with his ambitions.

Squinting into the setting sun, Emma took the next right, downhill, and slowed to a jog. Her cheeks flushed and the light, burning white from pale concrete, turned the way ahead into a blinding landscape of shifting colors. Dark glasses were useless.

An engine, running rough, approached from behind and an ancient Cadillac sailed slowly past. Emma doubted it had any shocks left at all. The white car continued on, weaving slightly, and since she could barely see the heads of the couple up front she figured them to be older. Probably wandered in for a look, thinking the retirement community was up and running.

Whoever came up with the idea and the money to start this development had not done their homework. The closest place to go, Pointe Judah, was a small bayou town that looked the same today as it had when Emma had been growing up. Getting from here to a city with a major downtown or an airport took too long for people with time on their hands and families to visit.

For a few moments she jumped in place, hopped from one foot to the other, shaded her eyes with a hand. Creepers snaked from overgrown lots onto the sidewalk. She ran the route at least once a week because other people didn’t go there.

A ways ahead a blue Honey Bucket stood in the road. The portable latrine hadn’t been there before so maybe they were going to restart building. With vines crawling up their frames and patches of purple, orange and white bougainvillea thrusting through open roof timbers, shells of houses in various stages of construction looked like greenhouses turned inside out.

Another runner approached her, taking the incline with an easy, loping stride. A man. A big, powerful man. Emma could tell that but nothing more and she hesitated in the act of starting off in his direction. If she turned abruptly and dashed back the way she’d come he would think she was running away from him.

She would be.

Regardless of which way she went, he could catch her if he wanted to.
Emma carried on, her pulse ringing in her ears, and her lungs barely expanding. She responded to the man’s, “Hello,” with one of her own. She didn’t look at him when they passed one another.

Could Orville have found out she’d come here? Had he guessed her plans to leave him and decided she should die at some crazy stranger’s hands rather than cause the mayor any inconvenience?

Now there was a paranoid thought.

The woman Finn Duhon just passed could be Emma Balou, but it was a long shot. The Emma Balou he remembered from highschool, the brainy, shy girl who never noticed how much time he spent looking at her, had been tall like the woman runner, and honey blond. That’s where most of the obvious similarities ended, leaving him with only a feeling to go on. He guessed Emma Balou, who had been thin in that not yet grown way, could have matured into the shapely runner.

He shouldn’t look back but he was only a human, in fact he was really human. Finn turned and ran backward, grateful the sun had sunk lower. In a white tank top and shorts, the woman kept going. There surely was something familiar about her. She had obviously overcome any curiosity she had about him–probably because he hadn’t interested her in the first place.

The woman tried to look back at him without breaking stride.

Finn stood still and felt more pleased than he should. Evidently he’d had some effect on her after all.

The lack of female company in his life showed. Time was when he hadn’t been stand-offish around women, or suspicious of their motives for be interested in him. There were good reasons for the change in him.

Emma stopped running. She turned slowly and stared uphill. He’d stopped, too, and shaded his eyes to stare down on her. He walked slowly back toward her. The impulse to run away, shrieking, passed blessedly quickly. The man had stopped because he thought he knew her, just as she thought she knew him.

Walking this time, she retraced her steps until they stood a few yards apart. She took off her glasses, found the handkerchief she carried in a back pocket, and wiped her face thoroughly. Then she rubbed the long bangs that hung wet around her eyes and down the sides of her face.

“Hey,” he said. “Emma Balou, is that you?” He swiped a forearm across his brow and put his fingers through short black hair.

The only people who wouldn’t know she was Mrs. Lachance would be people who no longer lived in town, people who had moved away before she married Orville twelve years earlier.

The stranger’s grin couldn’t be missed, a big, white grin in a tanned face. They drew closer and her hand went to her mouth. “Finn Duhon? Well, I’ll be…Finn Duhon, it is you? I thought you were still in the…”

“Army. Not anymore,” he said and now she could see that his eyes were just as sharply hazel as they ever had been. A good-looking boy had grown into an arresting man. More than that, really. In his face she saw the look of a man who had seen too much for too long. His body testified to hard physical training.

“You were in Special Ops? I think that’s what they call it.”

He nodded. “Yep, that’s it. What’s been goin’ on with you?”

A gust of hot breeze caught the door of the Honey Bucket. It rattled and creaked.
With her hands on her hips, she bent slightly and looked at her well-worn running shoes. “Not a whole lot. I went to Tulane but decided not to stay on after my second year. I’ve got a shop at the old Oakdale Mansion–Poke Around it’s called.” She laughed. “Sandra, the woman who works with me, came up with that because we have a pretty eclectic stock. And folks do come in because they’re not sure what to expect. The shop keeps me busy.”

But it didn’t keep her happy, Finn decided. Sadness, or tension, hung around her eyes and mouth. He saw a wedding ring. So why hadn’t she said she was married?
He would like to tell her she was a beautiful woman but most likely she wouldn’t understand his uncomplicated appreciation for lovely females–usually uncomplicated.

“My mother left me her house,” he said. “I decided to come back and see if this was somewhere I could settle down.”

“Of course.” She turned pink. “Mrs. Duhon passed recently. I wasn’t thinkin’. I’m so sorry for your loss. She was a sweet lady.”

“That, she was. And smart.” He remembered his mother’s face. “I never met a more determined woman, even when her life must have felt ruined.”

Emma nodded and the trouble in her expression wasn’t faked. “I remember,” she said.

She was remembering the circumstances of his father’s death–just months before his mother’s—and Finn didn’t intend to get into that now. “Thank you for askin’. How are your folks?”

“Where are they would be a better question. I think they’re real well but they’re off in one of those RVs, drivin’ all over the country, and Canada. Who would have thought the town doctor and his schoolteacher wife would fall in love with drivin’ from one RV park to the next. My dad says there’s nuthin’ like the smell of bacon cookin’ outside in the mornin’. The two of them like to sit in their lawn chairs and soak up the scenery.”

“Sounds good to me.” He meant each word.

Emma looked into the distance. “Aren’t you going back into stocks . . . somethin’ to do with stocks? I remember hearin’ you shocked your folks when you left your business in New York to go in the service.”

“I was a stock-trader coach.” A successful one, only it had come too easy, been too lucrative, surrounded him with too many people who wanted what he had. “No, ma’am, I’m not goin’ back to that, either. Sometimes you’ve just got to cut loose and find a new way. Could be I’m comin’ close to findin’ it, too.”

Emma met his eyes directly but he felt she’d moved away from their conversation. Her lips parted and she frowned. He expected her to say something but she shook her head instead.

“Are you happy, Emma?” He had no right to ask but he wanted to know.

“Is anyone?” She gave an openly bitter laugh and pushed damp hair back. It had started to curl and he recalled she’d had curls in highschool, lots of curls. The ponytail she wore was as honey blond as he remembered from school. And if anything, her blue eyes were more vivid.

Why not jump in with both feet? “You just startin’ your run, or would you like to get a drink or some coffee somewhere in town? You could catch me up on the local action and be doin’ an old acquaintance a favor.” It was up to her to say yes or no, or that she was married. “I expect you’ve got a car with you.”

“No car. I like long runs.”

The old Caddy that passed him on his way up slowly retraced it’s route.

“These folks must be lost,” Finn said. The car crawled, going slower and slower as it approached. “I guess we must be the most interesting thing they’ve seen around here.” He laughed.

Emma grabbed his arm and pulled him back. The car took a too-wide arc and came straight for them. Correcting just in time, the driver, who peered out through thick glasses, glanced his front fender off the Honey Bucket, setting it rocking. Speeded up, slowed down again, and gradually climbed the hill.

“That’s dangerous,” Emma said, watching the car. “I think I’d like to get some coffee and catch up. You and I weren’t exactly part of any in-crowd so we can look at things from the outside, in, if you know what I mean. But I can’t be long.”

“Good enough. I drove here. My truck’s close.”

The latrine, still swaying a little, snapped open.

The top of a woman’s head burst into view, swung forward revealing a naked back. Light colored hair matted with something dark swung forward. The woman kept falling in slow motion, caught by a shoulder against the inside of the latrine.

Emma choked down a scream and started forward.

Automatically Finn said, “Get back, Emma. I’ll see to this.”
She didn’t move a muscle or avert her eyes–or scream. She gulped air through her mouth and turned chalky white.

“Call 911,” he told her. “Don’t touch anythin’.”

He closed in. The angle of the dying sun hit the inside of the fiber glass door, and the woman’s lard white skin. The pitch dark interior of the latrine didn’t reveal the rest of what had to be a horror picture.

“I don’t have a phone,” Emma said in a too-breathy voice. She ignored his instructions and stood beside him. “We have to see what’s happened.”

“What you don’t see, you don’t have to remember. Please step back. Take my phone.” He slid it from his waist and gave it to her.

“She may still be alive,” Emma said. “I’ll feel her pulse.”

Streamers of something other than blood marred the pale skin. Full breasts, trickled over with the same dark substance, added to her utter helplessness, her vulnerability to any curious eye. “She doesn’t have a pulse,” he said, looking at other telltale signs on the exposed skin. The legs were tucked back. “We shouldn’t risk disturbing any evidence.”

“Why doesn’t she just fall out of there?” Emma walked away from him, made to go closer to the latrine. He only held her wrist a moment before the look she gave warned him to let go.

She leaned to see inside, to see the rest of the body, and held herself there, still except for a silently moving mouth and tears that slid down her face. Emma kept her hands clasped behind her back and began to shake. She turned her back to Finn and threw up, too horrified to care what he thought.

Gasping, holding her handkerchief to her mouth, she said, “Denise,” and dropped to her knees while pressing buttons on the phone. “Denise Steen is dead.” She spoke into the receiver and gave their location. “She’s been murdered.”

Finn leaned over her. The woman’s body unraveled inch by inch from the grotesque pose in which it had been left. Her left hand had been clamped under her on the toilet seat. Her own weight on top kept her from just falling forward–until the latrine started rocking. Whatever had drizzled over head and body, also streamed down her legs. “Looks like chocolate syrup,” he said.

“No,” Emma whispered when Finn stepped back to keep away from the gradually sliding body. “She’s so decent. Who would do this to her?” The dead woman jerked against her own hand, thudded to the floor and came to rest in a twisted sitting position just inside the door.

“It’s so sick,” Emma said, pointing to an obscenely red cocktail cherry in the corpse’s navel.

Return to Top

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.

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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 – 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."

Now You See Him – Excerpt

Now You See Him

Mira
November 1, 2004
Amazon ASIN: B000AI4K6C
ISBN-10: 0778320995
ISBN-13: 978-0778320999

Buy at Amazon.com Buy at BN.com Buy at Seattle Mystery Bookshop

CHAPTER ONE

There is a beat in this city, like the throbbing of arteries when the heart contracts.

New Orleans has its own pulse. I hear it now, getting faster. Steam vents through grills in the street. If they pumped blood from those grates the air would turn red, but the pressure would ease.

It’s early, early enough the breeze through jasmine doesn’t take the edge off last night’s scents of booze, sweat and urine.

This waterproof bike-suit makes me sweat and the helmet doesn’t help anything.

Concentrate.

My timing must be as perfect as it was the first time. I’ve already seen her several times. The one. Rich, spoiled, dissatisfied and looking for more treasures to buy, to stuff in the bottomless cavity she thinks is her desire. Boredom is the name of that cavity, and fear. The boredom of a woman who has everything but purpose. She would never confess to fear but it’s there, fear of being alone with herself. I loathe such women. One of them has ruined my life by using my talent and ignoring my existence.

Concentrate.

Antiques, Diamond and Gold Jewelry by Xavier Tilton.

Whooee, that is some name to fill up an awning over a shop door. Shops like this one cram Royal Street but I picked out Xavier Tilton’s place for the diamonds—and the long-legged woman who comes at the same time on the same morning each weeks. Tilton carries more diamonds than any other place I’ve checked. They shimmer and flash inside glass-fronted display cases lining the walls. No fingerprints on that glass; Xavier carries a half-mit in his pocket and moves behind customers discreetly wiping away any evidence of their presence.

He’s doing it now, sliding behind her, talking and wiping.

It’s time. They’re alone in there and the street is almost empty. Nothing but a few stinking, sleeping no-names covered with piles of rags. Once I’m in the shop I’ll close the door to keep the sound down.

Wait, there’s a delivery truck. If it stops here I’ll have to change plans.

Come on, come on. Geez, a friggin turtle. Move. Good, it’s parking over there, the driver’s leaving the engine running. Any distraction is good.

Call Xavier to the courtyard behind the shop, to the deliveries gate. Now! Move your feel. Walk into the alley beside the shop and press the button beside the pretty iron gate.

“Xavier Tilton here.”

“Mornin’ Mr. Tilton. Gift delivery from Blossoms.”

“Bring it into the shop.”

Shit. “It’s a fern of some sort. A tree. ‘Bout seven foot.”

“I’ll meet you at the delivery gate. Give me a couple of minutes to get through the courtyard.”

Do that, Xavier. Take your time getting to your gate. I’m the one who has to get inside the shop and keep moving until this is finished.

It’s raining again. Quick, inside, close the door quietly. Smells of ammonia and stinkin’ candles.

Bless you, Xavier, for the classy music. Nothing like a little opera early in the morning.

The seconds are ticking away now. How long before Tilton comes back?

The woman has heard me coming into the shop. “Mornin’, ma’am.” Don’t I sound friendly?

“Good mornin’ to you,” she says. “He’ll be right back.” Pretty face. Smooth blond hair. Much younger than I thought. Too bad. She wants something in the case, can’t look away from it for more than a second.

Her purse is small—no straps. Fate is smiling.

Take out the pick and palm it against my thigh. Cram the dark visor down.

Stay cool. Two steps . . . and strike. Ouch, it goes in easy enough until she falls and her weight hangs on the pick. Damn blood everywhere, running down the visor and blurring everything. Wipe it on your sleeve. She’s doing it right. With a little guidance from me she falls forward and through the glass and she doesn’t say a word, doesn’t scream. That’s because she’s already dead—or close to it.

How many more seconds? If he catches me it’s over.

I can see her in the mirrored back of the case, sliding down, breaking shelves, tipping all the pretty things. She’s not pretty anymore.

Pull the pick out. NOW. Grab the purse and stuff inside the suit. Move my feet, back away, put the pick in its thigh pocket, open the door, close it behind me and walk away. Walk fast but not too fast—to the corner, turn, and there’s the bike.

I’m away and heading for that coulee and the ruined shack. It wasn’t the woman’s fault, not really, she was in the wrong place at the wrong time—for her.

This suit doesn’t keep the wind out, or am I cold? How can I be cold. Warm rain hits my neck and should turn this oilskin stuff into a sauna? I’m going where I went before, out past the zoo.

Soon the scenery gets lonely, the undergrowth is burned, and rotting trees lean this way and that. The deeper I go the more deserted it feels.

The coulee isn’t deep enough but it’ll have to do.

The rented bike goes into the barn. My own wheels never looked so good. Off with the suit and wrap the helmet and purse inside, and the gloves, the black tennis shoes, underwear too. Now I stuff the lot into a double garbage sack but I can’t load it until I wash.

The soap is still where I hid it. Colder, the water should be colder and chafe my skin red and clean. My feet cling to slimy gravel and tree roots. Why do I shiver when I’m not cold anymore? Soap coats me and I rub it in hard, dig my fingernails into the soft surface of the bar.

Not enough. I want to bleed, I want to hurt. A pebble, large and porous like pumice—yes, it will clean me. It tears into my upper arms, into the skin on my belly and buttocks, the backs of my thighs and my elbows. Long red stripes that pop bubbles of blood, then begin to seep in ragged rivulets quickly mixed to a bloody wash by the water. I want to lay the flesh on my face raw but everyone would see it.

Sometimes a sacrifice must be made—as an example. I didn’t want to do it the first time or this time, but I had to, Sonja made sure of that. Sonja owes me.

God help me, one more to go.

CHAPTER TWO

THE TIMES ONLINE:
New Orleans. Tuesday, October 23

Yesterday morning an as yet unidentified woman died when she fell into a jewelry display case at a Royal Street antique shop.

Owner Xavier Tilton, alone with the woman at the time, received a call to the outside service entrance and left the woman in the shop. By the time he returned she appeared close to death and did, in fact, expire before the police and aid units reached the scene.

Although Mr. Tilton is sure the victim carried a purse, no purse was located at the Royal Street shop. Mr. Tilton reported that the deceased had been interested in a piece of antique diamond jewelry in the case. After the incident, no merchandise appeared to be missing. The ring the victim was considering remained on her finger.

No official comment has yet been made but information from a credible source revealed that the crime has been classified as murder.

A tentative link is made to the bizarre murder of Stephanie Gray during Mardi Gras two years ago. At that time a close friend of Miss Gray said the victim had traveled to New Orleans to try out for a place in a band. The friend did not hear from Miss Gray after she boarded a bus in Bismark, ND.

At autopsy it was discovered the woman had most likely died before being trampled during the parade. A weapon later described as probably an ice pick, had been stabbed beneath the base of her skull then removed. No purse or other personal possessions were ever found. Our sources tell us yesterday’s Royal Street victim also sustained a mortal wound to the brain, most likely inflicted with an ice pick, and used in part to drive her through a heavy glass door in the display cabinet.

Last Friday, Charles Penn, convicted murderer of Stephanie Gray, escaped while being transported between maximum security facilities. He remains at large.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

“Think it’s going to rain?” Father Cyrus Payne, pastor of St. Cécile’s parish in Toussaint, Louisiana pounded along the path beside Bayou Teche with his friend Joe Gable at his heels.

“Nope.” Joe Gable didn’t say a lot when they took these early morning runs together.

Cyrus figured Joe only stayed behind him because he was too polite to leave the narrow track and pass. Cyrus turned his face up to the hazy sky and said, “It’ll rain.”

“What evidence do you have to back up that claim?” Joe sounded like the lawyer he was.

“Purely circumstantial stuff,” Cyrus said. “It’s almost eight and there’s no sign of the sun.”

“Pretty thin,” Joe said. The church and rectory came into view and he made sure, politely, that he was the first on the faint path from the bayou to Cyrus’s garden gate. “When the haze shifts the sun will be out.”

“I feel rain coming.”

Joe laughed. “Well now, that changes everything. You’ve got me convinced.”

Cyrus thumped his friend’s shoulder. Once inside the white fence which surrounded the garden, they slowed and walked side-by-side on crunchy, sunburned grass. There wouldn’t be much time to get cleaned up and have a think before mass at 8:30.

“Madge is here again,” Joe said, pointing to Madge Pollard’s car parked beside Cyrus’s red Impala station wagon in front of the house.

“Madge works here, she’s here every day.” He’d almost said she was always here.

“This early, Cyrus?”

“Not all the time.” This line of questioning didn’t come up often but when it did Cyrus felt awkward, almost cornered. His own fault for being so dependent on Madge as his assistant—and his friend.

“She’s a special woman,” Joe commented. “And she’s lovely.”

“Yes, she is.”

Joe slanted him a look and said, “I’ll carry on back to the office and shower there. Wills, wills and more wills today, not that I’m complaining.”

“Cyrus!”

They both stood still and looked across Bonanza Alley, the little street between the church and the rectory. There was Madge, just as if talking about her had conjured her up. She ran between graves in the churchyard, waving a piece of paper above her head. “Wait!” she cried, even though they hadn’t moved since her first shout.

Alarmed, Cyrus hurried to meet her. Today she wore red, his favorite because it showed off her dark curly hair and even darker eyes—and it went with her bright spirit. “Mornin’, Madge. You’re awful early.”

She didn’t smile or greet him in return. “Where have you been? I looked for you everywhere.”

Joe caught up with him and they said, “jogging,” in unison.

“I’m glad you’re here,” Madge told Joe. “You probably know Ellie Byron better than any of us.”

Cyrus felt Joe stiffen. “What about Ellie?” he said.

“Maybe we should get out of the street,” Madge said although there wasn’t a moving vehicle in sight. She looked hard at Cyrus and said, “There’s coffee ready in the kitchen. Let’s get some and you can both read this.” She waggled the sheet of paper again and led the way around the house to the back kitchen door and inside.

“I don’t need coffee, thanks,” Joe said. He’d turned pale under his tan. “Let me see that, please. I’ve got to get back.”

Back to the town square where his offices were only two doors away from Ellie’s book shop, Cyrus thought.

Joe scanned the computer printout he’d taken from Madge, read it again—more slowly, and gave it to Cyrus.

He finished it and his hand fell to his side. He watched Joe’s reaction. The man crossed his arms tightly and he looked into the distance as if he’d forgotten where he was and who he was with.

“Well, say something,” Madge demanded. “Do something.”

“We probably won’t need to do anything,” Cyrus said. “Ellie happened to be on a hotel balcony when Stephanie Gray died—staring straight down. Other people were there and they didn’t see a thing. For some reason Ellie did. In all that crush she noticed a woman fall like a log, not get accidentally pushed the way it was supposed to look. But she didn’t see the killer—or she’s not sure if she did or not. Ellie couldn’t identify him.”

“What if Charles Pen doesn’t really believe that?” Madge said tightly. “What if he decides to come after her?”

“He may blame her,” Joe said. “I’ve thought about this plenty. She couldn’t identify him, but she wouldn’t rule him out.”

Suddenly Madge’s eyes shone with angry tears. “He got caught because he was there, exactly there, and he ran. He got in the way of people trying to help Stephanie, he was in such a hurry.”

Joe scrubbed at his face and said, “I can’t get it out of my head that maybe if Ellie had been down there, she’d have been the one who died.”

“God rest the soul who did,” Cyrus murmured.

“Not everyone believed Ellie had never seen Charles Penn before,” Madge cut in. “Some said she must have seen him but she was afraid to admit it in case he ever came after her.”

“Poor girl,” Cyrus said. “She’d barely come through the nightmare at Rosebank and managed to pull herself together for Spike and Vivian’s wedding and this happened.” Rosebank belonged to Vivian and her mother. They ran it as a hotel with a few long stay apartments. Sheriff Spike Devol and Vivian Patin had been married at the house a few weeks after the Patins’ lawyer was found dead on the grounds and Ellie got singled out for some unpleasant attention. Cyrus glanced at the headline again. “Ellie’s been through too much and I don’t think we know all of it.”

“I’ll tell you this much,” Joe said, his dark blue eyes flat and hostile. “If Ellie said she’d never seen Penn before the lineup, she’d never seen him. Ellie doesn’t lie.”

Madge said, “We all love Ellie. I’d do anything for her.”

“It’ll take me about fifteen to run back there,” Joe said, the defensive expression still on his face.

“Take my car,” Madge said.

“Or mine,” Cyrus offered.

“I’d rather run,” Joe said as he opened the door.

When they were alone Madge poured coffee for Cyrus and herself. She put the cups on the table before the kitchen windows and they sat down.

“We mustn’t frighten Ellie,” Madge said. “But we’re all going to have to keep watch on her.”

“And pray Penn gets picked up quickly.” Cyrus said. The first drops of rain hit the windows but he didn’t feel any triumph. “We’re going to have to watch both of them, Ellie and Joe. He could put them both in danger if he rushes in without knowing what he’s getting into.”

“The police will come poking around,” Madge said. “It’s the Sheriff’s Department jurisdiction out here, but the New Orleans people will want to talk to Ellie.”

“NOPD probably has a detective on the way as we speak,” Cyrus said. “But Spike will have a cruiser in the square all the time and he’ll camp on Ellie’s doorstep to keep her safe if necessary—with Joe. I’m glad she has the dog now.”

Madge topped up their coffee. “Did you see his Joe’s face when he went out of here?”

“Uh huh—and before. First he looked sick and scared, then mad.”

“Did you have any thoughts about that.” Madge stirred her coffee and kept her eyes lowered.

“Maybe, tell me yours first.” Cyrus didn’t like to start gossip.

“I think Joe’s in love with Ellie.”

So did Cyrus and he wasn’t sure the idea gave him a warm and cozy feeling.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Ellie Byron reached to turn off the computer, but couldn’t make herself do it. Even when she pushed her chair away from the desk she could read the words on the screen, or maybe she’d memorized them in one reading.

Charles Penn on the loose.

And within hours another ice pick killing occurred, like the one at Mardi Gras two years ago.

Hungry Eyes, Ellie’s book shop and café occupied the entire floor beneath her flat and a second, vacant one she tried to keep rented. She had gone down to get ready for the day and popped back up to check the news online, as she did every morning.

Ellie forced herself to move and ran down to lock the shop doors again. She hurried to switch off all appliances in the small café. She kept a wary eye open for her regular early customers and printed on an index card: SORRY. LATE OPENING TODAY. This she attached to a window with a suction cup and hook.

Trailing a battered cell phone by its antenna, Daisy, her German Shepherd loped into the shop and flopped on her bed, followed by Zipper, the moody cat Zipper, Ellie had bought for Daisy. Zipper didn’t lope, she sprang, all four feet leaving the ground at the same time, and landed on top on Daisy.

The dog inherited the phone after she began stealing and hiding it at every opportunity. She played up like a kid when a call came in for Ellie.

Outside in the square two early morning delivery trucks, parked half on and half off the sidewalk were the only signs that a new business day had begun. Boxes piled outside Cerise’s Boutique, a dress shop opened a few months ago, meant Cerise was late getting started again. Ellie worried about Cerise’s merchandize being left on the sidewalk.

The driver of the second truck carried supplies into Lucien’s Hair Affair and Spa where the first clients would already be lounging and tucking into fresh beignets and café au lait, unless they preferred champagne. Lucien had come from an upscale salon in New Orleans.

The only other vehicle in sight belonged to her friend Joe Gable, a lawyer with offices almost next door. His army green Jeep hung out in its usual spot beneath a gnarled old Sycamore. Ellie gave the vehicle a long look. The thought that Joe was so closeby gave her courage.

From the way things looked outside, this was just another day in this old Bayou Teche town, only for Ellie it was anything but just another day. She switched off the little radio balanced between jars of loose candies on a shelf in the café.

Keep busy. Think about what you should do next, but don’t think about ice picks. She stopped breathing and looked behind her, into the square, again. No one brandishing an ice pick out there.

The nightmare began again and she squished the urge to call Joe. That wouldn’t be wise.

“C’mon gals,” she said to the animals. She didn’t attempt to soothe their injured feelings at being disturbed from a little morning nap for the second time. “Now! Heel, Daisy. Upstairs we go.”

Keeping up with the news online became a habit after the death of poor Stephanie Gray almost two years previous, when Ellie was the only eye witness in the case.

When the last tenant left the second flat above the shop, Ellie hadn’t hurried to replace her. She still toyed with the idea of making the two flats into one large one but couldn’t afford a renovation yet.

Ellie closed herself in but heard the insistent ring of the bell at the shop door. She knelt on the floor between Daisy and Zipper and held their muzzles. “You’re good girls but you mustn’t bark.” Some hope. They thought barking at possible intruders was their reason to live.

The bell rang again and she shuffled on her knees with an arm around Daisy until she reached the front windows. She looked down at the top of a man’s dark blond hair. Behind him at the curb stood a gray Dodge sedan in need of a paint job.

Ellie couldn’t think for the hammering of her heart and the pounding in her ears.

Calm down. Sure Charles Penn had similar coloring, but he wouldn’t come to her door in broad daylight and ring the bell.

She should call for help now. Joe would come, and Spike. The phone rang and Ellie jumped so badly her chest hurt. She picked up and said, “Joe?” Sometimes he called her around this time.

“You are there, Miz Byron. My name is Guy Gautreaux, Detective Guy Gautreaux, NOPD. I just want to ask you a few questions.”

CHAPTER THREE

Ellie muzzled Daisy, put on her choke chain and shut Zipper in the apartment. No point having a well-trained dog then leaving her where she couldn’t be of any help.

Daisy’s alert button had been pressed. Nose straight ahead she didn’t as much as whine while she walked beside Ellie. They arrived at the shop door and Ellie peered through at a rangy man dressed in jeans and a denim jacket. Detective Gautreaux gave a big, white grin and looked back at her with liquid almost black eyes.

The detective had an open face and the eyes were sincere.

Ellie stared at him, waiting. Just because he looked like someone’s handsome, harmless big brother returned from a camp counselor stint didn’t mean he’d get inside Hungry Eye so easily.

He mouthed something and indicated the door handle.

Ellie put her hands on her hips and raised her eyebrows. Daisy gave a single deep bark and strained toward the door.

He slapped his forehead in one of those, “What was I thinking?” motions and produced his badge which he pressed against the glass so she could read clearly. Looked real, darn it. Now she had no excuse not to let him in. She took off Daisy’s muzzle and opened the door.

Gautreaux stepped inside and locked the door behind him.

Ellie wasn’t sure that made her feel comfortable. She could feel Daisy vibrating under her skin, see the way the dog’s eyes went from her to Gautreaux.

The detective gave her a disarming grin and walked forward to take a look at the shop and café. “Nice place,” he said and she noted he wasn’t grinning anymore although, even in repose, there were plenty of lines to prove he smiled a lot. “Some dog, too. What’s his name?”

“She’s Daisy.” Ellie held onto Daisy as if she barely had control of the animal. “It’s not a good idea to make nice with her.”

Gautreaux nodded gravely. “Ex police dog?”

“No, but she’s just as well trained. Friend of mine had a friend who trained her. And Daisy’s in therapy regularly so she’s fairly predictable.” The devil made her say the last bit.

“Therapy?” Gautreaux looked blank.

“Both Daisy and Zipper. We’ve got one of the best dog therapists around, right here in Toussaint. L’Oisseau de Nuit. We call her Wazoo.”

“Uh huh. How interestin’. Is Zipper another Shepherd?”

“Mean cat. She belongs to Daisy. Daisy gets lonely if she doesn’t have someone to play with.”

“Well,” Gautreaux said, “I sure understand how she feels about that.” The expression on his face didn’t flicker and he didn’t give Ellie even a suggestion of an invitation with his eyes.

“I have a lot to do,” Ellie said. This guy thought he was smooth and that she was a small town girl waiting for a nod from an urban cowboy. If she had her way, he’d never find out how wrong he was about her.

“Look, these are informal questions but you’re expected to take them seriously.”

Ellie’s sweating hand slipped on Daisy’s cinch. She didn’t comment.

“Where were you first thing yesterday mornin’?” He turned on the smile again. “Remember, this doesn’t mean anythin’. Just a few routine questions to fill up the necessary spaces.” His pen hovered over a notebook and he hummed while he waited. “Between the moonshine, and the shinin’ of the moon…” He sang barely above a whisper. A pleasant sound—too pleasant.

“Yesterday mornin’?” he prompted.

“I was here.”

“And you’d been here all the night before?”

“Yes.”

“Alone?”

She blushed, darn it. “Yes, alone. I live alone.”

“What time did you open up?”

“Around twelve.”

Gautreaux looked at her sharply. “Why so late?”

She began to feel angry, and hot. “I take an occasional Monday morning off. I clean up the stacks, work on my books, pay bills.”

“You can’t do that without closin’ the shop?”

“I’m the only one here. I’d be interrupted all the time.”

“So there wasn’t anyone here with you yesterday morning? Who saw—”

Joe, in a mesh tank top and running shorts, used his key and opened the shop door. With his jaw jutting, he advanced on Gautreaux. “What the hell’s goin’ on here?” He hooked a thumb over his shoulder. “I see NOPD’s unmarked cars haven’t gotten any cuter.”

At the very least, Ellie would like to stand beside him but she thought better than to move.

“You heard me,” Joe said. He had a film of sweat on his tanned face and body and his navy blue eyes narrowed to slits. “Why are you here?”

“Who are you?” Gautreaux asked, flashing his badge. “This is a friendly conversation between Miz Byron and me.”

“I’m her lawyer,” Joe said promptly, although he wasn’t. “Joe Gable.”

“A lawyer with a key to the castle.”

When Gautreaux showed his white teeth again Ellie feared Joe might land a fist right there. Every muscle and sinew in his fit body flexed. His black curly hair clung to his forehead and neck.

Since it was obvious Joe didn’t intend to answer the detective’s question, Ellie said, “Joe is my neighbor, too, and we keep spare keys for each other.”

“Cozy,” Gautreaux said, apparently unaware that Joe’s stance had changed. Ellie swallowed several times. Leaning forward slightly, Joe’s hands had curled into fists.

Without moving her feet, Daisy stretched her neck, sniffed Gautreaux’s jeans and rested her big wet nose at the side of his knee.

Ellie didn’t move her away and Gautreaux behaved as if he hadn’t noticed.

“Why are you here?” Joe said to Gautreaux.

“I thought I told you. To ask the lady some questions.”

Joe turned his attention on Ellie. “Did he tell you what the interview was about?” She’d never seen him like this. He seethed.

“No,” she said. “But I figured—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Joe said, quickly enough to let Ellie know he didn’t want her finish what she’d been about to say.

“Hey.” Gautreaux gave Joe a man-to-man look. “Why don’t the three of us sit down somewhere. I don’t have a lot to ask but we could get through faster.”

Joe appeared about to refuse but he took a deep breath through his nose instead and nodded shortly. “How about the table at the back of the stacks?” he asked Ellie, putting a hand at her waist.

“Fine,” she told him, very aware that for all the times they’d shared together, she never remembered him touching her except for one time when they danced at Pappy’s Dancehall.

Gautreaux stood aside to let them pass between lines of books and Ellie smiled when Daisy looked up at him and raised one side of her top lip. They took chairs around a table where customers sat to look over possible purchases. A circle of easy chairs for book club meetings would be more comfortable but Ellie didn’t want to get comfortable.

This time Daisy put her chin on Joe’s thigh and proceeded to sniff him.

He laughed and said, “I really do need a shower.” But he kissed Daisy’s head and, with a great sigh, she leaned against him.

“Let’s pick up where we left off,” Gautreaux said. “Did anyone see you here in the shop yesterday mornin’, Miz Byron?”

Ellie thought about it and said, “I don’t think so.”

“Not even your lawyer?”

“Not even her lawyer,” Joe said, showing his teeth in a vaguely Daisy-way. “Loads of people must have, though, Ellie. The early café customers at the very least.”

“Miz. Byron didn’t open the shop until twelve yesterday,” Guy Gautreaux said without looking at Joe. “She says she was doin’ paperwork and tidying up.”

“Then that’s what she was doing,” Joe said in as close to a deadly voice as Ellie had heard him use.

Gautreaux wrote and said, “Subject doesn’t have an alibi for night of 21 or mornin’ of 22. I’ll need to speak to anyone who did see you in the afternoon, but you can leave that to me.”

“You’re going all over Toussaint asking questions about me?” Ellie said.

“I’m a discreet man,” he said and stood up. Daisy squeezed past Ellie and planted that moist nose in exactly the same spot at the side of the man’s knee. “As Miz Byron was about to say before you stopped her, Joe, she figured quite correctly that I’m here because of her connection to the Stephanie Gray killin’. By now I’m sure you both know there was a murder in New Orleans yesterday. Royal Street. Same MO as the Gray case. Charles Penn escaped from custody a few days back and hasn’t been picked up so I’ll ask you to be careful, ma’am, and call me at this number if you encounter anything unusual.” He passed her a card. “No one you couldn’t identify has tried to contact you? Or even someone you did identify but wished you hadn’t?”

Ellie stiffened and took short breaths through her mouth. She knew what the last, not very subtle question meant. Daisy moved her head ever so slightly and gently closed her big, white teeth on a smidgeon of Gautreax’s jeans leg.

“No,” Ellie said. She might be scared but she wouldn’t let it show. She hardly dared look at Joe, but she could feel him, feel his anger although she couldn’t figure out why he was getting so mad at her, or Gautreaux.

“This was just an initial contact,” Gautreaux said. “I’m sure we’ll have to come to you again—or have you come to us. We’re there for you, and I mean that sincerely. I’ll make sure the local Sheriff’s Department is informed. Is there anyone you could ask to be with you until this is cleared up?”

“Yes,” Ellie said. “Daisy.”

“Not quite what I had in mind,” Gautreaux said, his gaze flicking toward Joe. “I’ll get some help from the local law. They’ll do some drivebys to check up on you.” He glanced at Daisy’s teeth and Ellie gave a little tug to disengage her buddy.

She wouldn’t help Gautreaux with a thing. He could find Spike Devol himself and later, she’d let Spike know she was just fine.

The detective gathered up his pad and pen and, as an afterthought, put one of his cards in front of Joe who left it on the table.

One last grin, a move to stroke Daisy—sensibly aborted—and he scuffed his dusty boots out of the shop.

Silence followed and Ellie’s jumpy nerves sickened her. Joe was her friend. He’d always been there if she’d needed something. Their response to each other had been slow at first but the liking had grown steadily and she enjoyed his offbeat sense of humor and spontaneity.

Joe stood up. He looked into Ellie’s face. “I’m goin’ to take a shower. Lock the door after me.”

He walked out.

NOW YOU SEE HIM

 

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