Out Comes the Evil Excerpt

out comes the evil

Crème de la Crime
December 1, 2015
ISBN-10: 1780290780
ISBN-13: 978-1780290782

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Prologue

Over-sexed slag?  Pamela Gibbon was forty-three. She was a fit, attractive, sexual woman, and she enjoyed the company of men – one at a time – a few years younger. They enjoyed her, too – a lot. But she had overheard the snide, disgusting comments in Folly-on-Weir’s village pub and if they were slamming her there, it wouldn’t be the only place.

She had stood in the entrance to the public bar at the Black Dog just long enough to take in the sneering chuckles among a group of men and women she had considered, if not friends, at least friendly acquaintances. Being approachable shouldn’t make her the butt of jokes.

For ten years she had lived among these people. She and her now dead husband bought their home, Cedric Chase, and lived there together until Charles died. Pamela had never thought of leaving. She loved the village and although she wasn’t particularly gregarious, she was on nodding and smiling terms with most locals.

A flush washed her neck. She wouldn’t have been at the pub tonight if she hadn’t wanted an opportunity for another look at Hugh Rhys. Hugh, the new manager who the owner, Alex Duggins, had hired to fill a vacancy, had a raw vitality about him and Pamela enjoyed getting sucked into the circle of intelligent conversation he attracted. He also attracted Pamela in other ways, although she was more than well satisfied with Harry Stroud and expected to remain so, especially now. She enjoyed Harry, a lot, and had half-hoped she would find him at the Black Dog . . .

Damn them all. She’d do what she bloody well pleased, including meeting Harry Stroud in a broken tower at a ruined manor house, in the middle of the night, to do whatever made them laugh, and sweat, and shout out their pleasure. At least what was left of old Ebring Manor, the ragged stone outline of the fourteenth-century house, a badly damaged drum tower, part of a fortifying wall along the River Windrush, the shells of several cavernous rooms and an incongruous fireplace or two – at least it was too far out to draw local kids and too decimated to interest even intrepid tourists. And Ebring wasn’t famous for anything in particular.

Within a couple of hours of turning away from the Black Dog, she had left home on the outskirts of Folly-on-Weir just before eleven and struck out through the back lanes leading to the neighboring village of Underhill.  Silvering from a three-quarter moon was all she needed to find her way, but she did recoil from the sounds of birds flying up from hedgerows and animals slinking about their nightly business.

Perhaps she hadn’t really intended to meet Harry tonight, not before she heard the jeers. Occasionally she liked to leave him waiting, make up an excuse when next she saw him, just to keep his interest bubbling. Not that she needed to, it just made her feel more desirable – and inventive – and it made Harry more ardent.  But no, that wasn’t what she had intended for this evening. It was time for them to have a more serious chat. Past time. Tonight she half-ran uphill to meet him. When she felt as she did now, it took too long to get there.

Initially she’d been annoyed that it was impossible to meet at his place. She lived alone but since it was important to Harry, the last thing she wanted was her housekeeper prying and spreading rumors – as if she hadn’t heard proof that it was already happening.

There was always the danger that one of them would be seen – not in the ruins, but leaving the village on foot at all hours. But danger had come to heighten the excitement.  But she didn’t think that would matter for long.

She smiled in the chilled darkness, breathed in the scent of approaching spring, of earth still hard and cool, though she had seen the tips of the first daffodils trying to push bright green shoots into the light. The blooms would be delayed and small this year.

Even dampened by the late hour, the subtle fragrance of bluebells turned the night soft and sleepy. True spring would be very late.

The sky resembled a great, black velvet bowl swirled with specks of shattered crystal. It was a marvelous, mysterious night.

Crossing the road that ran toward Underhill, then into the hills above Folly-on-Weir took a little time. A driver who picked her up in the headlights might stop to see if she was OK. Awkward wouldn’t cover that event. And she knew Harry didn’t want his father, the major, to hear gossip about his love life. Major Stroud still expected his son to marry a ‘suitable young gel.’ Harry lived in his parents’ house, the largest, most imposing one in the village.

Inheritance was a large issue in Harry’s life, poor dear. Not that it had to be. She intended to help take the power out of Major and Mrs Stroud’s hands.

A single vehicle came from the right and she leaped back into the cover of brush, and ducked down. If the driver of the car noticed her, he or she didn’t believe their eyes and carried on – after a few seconds, or perhaps she only imagined the hesitation.

Her hours in the saddle kept her conditioned. Grateful for her strong rider’s legs, she struck out at a jog. In the large flask she wore across her body under a tweed jacket, a good part of a bottle of Clos des Saveurs ’76 Bas Armagnac bounced solidly against her. Harry had a weakness for fine cognac, one Pamela shared. And he knew his stuff. This would make him happy. She also carried a heavy green canvas bag, with the binoculars she wanted to return to Harry inside, and a box of the La Florentine Marrons Glace Harry loved, especially when they lay together after sex. The little candied chestnuts from Italy were only one of the many delicacies he had a taste for.

Thick trees lined the rim of the hill in the direction she had to go. She quickened her pace. Harry’s phone message had come in on her answer machine while she was on her way to the Black Dog. Thank God she hadn’t missed it when she went home in a funk.

Once in the trees, she used her small flashlight and followed a familiar, if faint, track they had made for themselves with regular visits. A few more minutes and she broke into the clearing where what remained of Ebring Manor reflected the moonlight.

She switched off her torch and carried on. Every step of the way was familiar.

At the base of the tower she stopped, disappointed. Usually Harry greeted her there, but not tonight. Her heart speeded up. She hadn’t got back to him, not that she always did. But he’d sounded as if he expected her. If he thought she wasn’t coming he wouldn’t be here either. Her breath shortened and tears of frustration prickled in her eyes. ‘Harry?’ she whispered up the spiral stone stairs.

The short tower acted like an echo chamber. Even a whisper slithered eerily upward.

Nothing.

Climbing carefully over broken stones and partially missing steps, she reached the top but didn’t find him. It was the perfect night. They wouldn’t need to huddle beneath a tarp to keep dry, although huddling with Harry was no hardship. Most of the roof had fallen away up here but they stored their supplies under what cover was left and rationalized that if it was ever found and taken, they would simply replace it. Pamela put down the bag with the heavy binoculars inside and waited, peering into the darkness from the broken walls of the tower.

She would soon get cold staying up here alone. This time she would have to be the one to wait at the foot of the stairs, looking for her lover.  The tower trapped faint moonglow inside and darkness gathered beyond the open doorway. Outside, she leaned against the rough wall and filled her lungs with air that felt still.

A faint light came on – from the ground some twenty-five or so feet to her right. The light was a thin beam. There, then almost gone. There again, then all but gone again. Then it stayed on, shining upward through the circular grating that covered an ancient well. So many times she’d tried to persuade Harry to help her shift the heavy grill and climb down the rungs she could see driven into the wall inside. ‘Those rungs have to lead to something,’ she’d rationalized. He would never do it. She squeezed her eyes shut and heard how he insisted he couldn’t risk her hurting herself. It was too dangerous.

Once again she looked. The feeble light was steady. She went closer – and choked back a scream. She slapped a hand over her mouth. The well was open. Another few steps and she could have fallen into the hole.

Someone had lifted the grill enough to swing it aside and let it rest mostly on the grass.

The light from below fizzled out.

Dropping to her knees, she crawled to the edge on all fours and trained her small torch downward, picking out the first few rusted metal rungs sunk into the stone sides of the well.

Harry! She grinned. He must have thought he could greet her with proof that her little obsession led nowhere interesting. He probably planned to leap out and shock her.

Tucking her torch away and leaving the bag behind, she swung a leg over the hole and felt around until she got it firmly on a metal bar. Quickly, keeping a firm hold on the rim where the grating usually rested, she concentrated on starting a stealthy descent. If he didn’t realize she was coming down, when she got close he’d find out who was in for a shock!

The torch could only be used for brief periods since she needed both hands, but she shone it cautiously at her feet and saw how the rungs stretched into the blackness.

Harry must have seen her light by now. This wasn’t feeling such a lark anymore.

Her skin turned damp and she felt sick, but she wasn’t going back. One of the things Harry liked about her was her gutsy, if quiet, personality.

A couple more steps and she had to start hanging onto the rungs with her fingers, too.  She stuffed the torch into a pocket and left it there.

Glass broke. It had to be glass although the sound was faint and brief.

A ping came. A pause, and another ping.

Something solid hit her right shoulder. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she cried out, flapping at her arm. Rapidly a cold object met the side of her face, slithered through her hair against her scalp and was gone. Flapping a hand at her head, she leaned against the wall. She turned on her light again, swung it upward, but saw only the opening above and a fuzzy halo blending into deep gloom.

Her muscles jerked and she shook, clutched the rungs, fighting for her breath. This was madness. She was getting out of here.

Her heart gradually stopped its painful beating in her throat and she put the torch away again – struck out, hand over hand, until her fingertips slid over the cold metal rim again and into dirt and gravel.

Pamela felt tears wet on her cheeks. She coughed and released one hand to wipe at her eyes before grabbing hold again.

A clang, like a rusty bell, rang out above her.

With her mouth open to drag at what oxygen her short breaths could catch, she made to haul herself out.

Pain came without warning, seared her fingers, her hands, her arms. Her garbled, ‘He-lp,’ scarcely sounded around the vomit she couldn’t control. The grate had dropped back in place, crushing her fingers beneath its horrendous weight.

For moments – she didn’t know how long – her legs swung free. She couldn’t think for the burning, mind-freezing pain. Drops hit her face and she tasted blood. Her own blood from her own hands.

‘I’m down here.’ It came as a gagging whisper and she concentrated every scrap of strength on raising her voice. ‘Help me. I-I’m shut in the well.’

She heard the grill scrape, peered up through stinging eyes to see it moving aside again. A tiny slit appeared while someone, who grunted loudly, strained and lifted.

Her vision distorted – the edges of her consciousness blurred. Were her feet on the rungs again? Choking, she tried to move her crushed hands but there was no feeling.

‘I can’t hold on,’ she screamed, feeling herself slide backward. ‘Grab my wrists.’ She screamed again.

Two strong, smooth hands pulled her bursting fingers free.

Rubber gloves, she thought, like a doctor.

He didn’t have to push her, simply let go.

Pamela’s head slammed into the stone walls as she fell.

With a mighty ringing, the grill smashed back into place, reverberated in waves all the way to her utter silence.

 

Cypress Nights – Excerpt

Cypress Nights

Harlequin Mira reprint
November 15, 2012
Amazon ASIN: B009NEDW0E
Barnes & Noble ID: 978-1460308554

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Excerpt Two | Excerpt Three | Excerpt Four

Excerpt One

Toussaint, Louisiana.
Early evening.

He was a worthy man, a brilliant, necessary man. His decisions benefited everyone in Toussaint. They would never recognize the good he did. Just as well. Their ignorance kept him free. Foolish interference with his plans would not be tolerated. Could not be tolerated.

Justice, that was his rightful name.

The final caress of warmth had seeped from the old, stone church. This wasn’t the place he would have chosen to deal with a threat to his plans, but he had no choice. Where else could he be certain of finding Jim Zachary alone?

St. Cecil’s and the holier-than-thou hypocrites who minced through its doors, represented the enemy. The people who loved to simper and whisper in the pews, to frown while they condemned the innocent for their supposed sins, and utter pious words of forgiveness they didn’t mean, enraged him.

Judgement. He had been judged, and punished. Now it was his turn to judge. And punish—and to take his reparation.

Fresh flowers spread their fickle scents, but the stench of old, rotted stems in unwashed vases ensured no-one forgot that this was a place where memories of the dead lingered. They had come here as innocent children with sweet flowers in their hands, then as adults with roses in their hair, in their buttonholes, and, when it was their turn, they came with lilies on their coffins.

From behind the bronze screen that hid tables loaded with hymnals, bulletins, donation envelopes and baskets where the hopeful left prayers written on scraps of paper, he watched the side door Jim Zachary used when he arrived for solitary evening prayer.

The knife felt slippery. Sweat wouldn’t be allowed to make the death noisy, or less swift.

Zachary was late.

Around the walls of St. Cecil’s, sconces flickered on. Rather than make one lone visitor more conspicuous, the small lights reduced the interior to a wash of shadows in shades of brown.

An outer door creaked, groaned on its great hinges, and metal-capped heels clattered on stone flags.

The inner door squealed open . . . Voices marred the silence.

Justice half-knelt to watch. His heart squeezed and thudded when scrawny little Jim Zachary entered the nave with Father Cyrus Payne behind him. The tall, well-built priest accentuated the other man’s almost childlike stature.

Weak and helpless in the strong hands of Justice.

But not tonight with the priest around.

Father Cyrus’s laugh echoed between the walls and the pillars. He picked up a clipboard from a table near the door and said, “See you at the meeting later?”

“I’ll be there,” Zachary said.

Father Cyrus gave Zachary a wave and left.

Justice’s breathing returned to normal and the iciness in his legs thawed. You will not be there, Jim Zachary. Come to me. You have brought this on yourself by your interference. Walk this way. You know where you sit—just a few feet from where I stand. You always sit there. Did you ever think that a habit could be dangerous? It is a great help when certain plans must be made.

From a distance, Zachary’s face couldn’t be seen. He held his head slightly turned and bowed—always—in a sign of humility. Or perhaps of subservience and insecurity.

Closer and closer Justice drew, his steps small, his gray hair falling over his tilted brow in a thick, straight wad.

Into the pew, put down the kneeler, bury your head in your hands, abject in the knowledge that you are not worthy.

Justice slowly produced the Italian switchblade he treasured, fired its silken smooth action open with the slightest audible, snick, and wiped its grip. He held ten inches of unforgiving stainless steel blade. The thin gloves he pulled on had leather stitched to the palms and fingertips and they would serve him well now that the knife handle was dry. His own hand was strong, and now it was cool.

On the balls of his feet, and rapidly, he left the cover of the screen, crossed the aisle to stand near a pillar, and allowed a few seconds to pass before he got
behind Zachary and slammed his left hand over the small man’s face.

At first the man didn’t move. He allowed himself to be jerked to his feet and yanked backward over the seat. With Zachary’s head crammed against his chest, Justice raised the knife.

Zachary flung out his arms and tried to twist free. He braced his feet on the back of the pew in front of him and pushed hard, but his opponent was like an iron jaw closed on a feeble catch. Gurgling burbled from Zachary’s throat, and a quavering scream.

He jerked from side-to-side, and bowed his body into an arch, repeatedly.

“You wouldn’t listen,” Justice said against the other’s ear. “Even when you knew you were wrong, you would not back down. This is for the good of Toussaint and this parish.” And Justice.

With one deft thrust, he sunk his long blade into the man’s neck and all the way through, shoved him, head first, to the seat and skewered him against the wood. He jerked, thrashed. So much blood, pumping out a man’s life. Why couldn’t Zachary have stayed away from church politics?

Gradually the violent movement faded. A rolled pamphlet was ready in Justice’s other pocket. He removed this and left it just as he had planned.

The great gush of blood from the artery in Zachary’s neck ebbed to a trickle and stopped.

Dead men didn’t bleed.

Later. Same evening.

“Why are you here?” Bleu Laveau said. She knew Roche Savage had come to the Parish Hall meeting because she was the one giving a presentation. He couldn’t have any interest in plans to build a new school.

He had come for her.

A tall, rangy man, with curly, almost black hair and the bluest eyes she had ever seen, he was in the business of fixing minds. And from his reputation, he was very successful. Somehow he must have found out her secret and she was a challenge to him now.

Only one person in Toussaint was aware of the life she had been trying to outrun for more than three years, and her cousin, Madge Pollard, wasn’t the gossiping type. That didn’t mean Roche couldn’t track her down some other way.

Why didn’t he say something? Dressed in jeans and an open-necked shirt with sleeves rolled back over his forearms, he looked casual but Bleu felt his tension. She inched away from him.

His relaxed stance didn’t match the way he stared at her. As if he was planning his next move.

Roche weighed what he should do. Bleu’s behavior had caught him off-guard. The woman trying to inch away, as if he might pounce on her, wasn’t the one he’d first met a couple of weeks ago over a cup of coffee. Something had happened to make her afraid of him and he wished he didn’t feel so certain about what that was.

Bleu was still moving. With her hair streaming in the wind, she took sideways steps up the slope from the Parish Hall to the spot where she had parked her Honda in the lane above.

Roche didn’t follow her. “Just talk to me,” he said. “That’s all I want. Tell me what’s wrong and I’ll try to make it right.”

She had been the last to leave a packed meeting on plans to build a new Parish school. Everyone else had already driven off.

And the instant she saw him, she had just about run away at first. He didn’t get it.

Bleu’s head pounded.”Please excuse me, ” she said. “I have to get home. Tomorrow’s a full day.”

What she wouldn’t ask him was if he knew about her marriage, about the horrible, personal things she’d been forced to talk about with strangers. If he did know, he could also be aware of the way her former husband had turned sex into something horrifying, and that she had been left with a fear of intimacy.

Yesterday, the potential truth about Roche’s interest in her suddenly became clear. She had been looking forward to having dinner with him when she figured it out: She wasn’t his type. He had another reason for wanting to spend time with her—to see if she would make an interesting case study, maybe?

Roche felt furious that he’s missed some signal she must have given him. He picked up some of the documents and files she’d dropped when she saw him waiting for her. “You’ll need these,” he said.

Last night she stood him up for dinner, but he had put it down to preoccupation with getting ready for tonight’s meeting. Obviously he had been wrong; she’d ducked out of the date to avoid him.

Damn, he was a healer, a seasoned psychiatrist who had only ever wanted to help people, not a man who terrified women in the dark.

When he looked up again, she stood like a stone, utterly still. He saw her honey blond hair glint in the moonlight, saw the glitter in her eyes. In the daylight they were bright green, always questioning, always vulnerable.

She took the paperwork from him. “Thank you.” Her soft words were difficult to hear in the wind.

Bleu Laveau, with her unassuming air and the way she listened closely when he talked, and her passion for the job she’d come to Toussaint to do, had captured him. His fascination with her, the urge to protect—and possess-almost disoriented Roche.

Disorientation was dangerous. He had to be in control of himself at all times.

She must not get any idea of his single-minded focus on her, not unless he could be sure she wanted it.

“I heard your presentation at the meeting,” he told her. And afterward, I stood in the shadow of a wall out here, waiting for you. You and I were meant to be together, Bleu. If someone’s told you I like adventure with my sex, the wilder, the better, they’re more or less right, damn them, but I can be whatever you want me to be. I’m the one in control, not my sex drive. You’ll never be afraid with me.

She looked from him to her car, probably figuring out how fast she could get away from him and what the chances were that he wouldn’t catch up.

About zero, lady.

Bleu felt foolish. She took another small step. He must be adding up symptoms to analyze later. He would be thinking she seemed nervous, and she was.

The only way out of this was to change the subject and calm down. “It will be a fight to build a school here,” she said. “So many people are against it.” Holding her ground wasn’t easy.

“Don’t leave without the rest of your papers,” he said. Bleu had come to Toussaint to do a study on the feasibility of building a new school for St. Cecil’s. The papers were important to her, every one of them.

“A lot of people are angry,” she continued, her voice tight. “The money hasn’t even been raised yet but they’re talking about using it for something else.”

Now she was babbling. One more symptom for his list.

“Yeah,” he said. “Some of them. Not all.”

Roche finished gathering her things and walked toward her. The pale moon did nothing more than suggest a light all but snuffed out, and his eyes looked black, fathomless.

“Some of them made it clear they wish I’d go away,” Bleu said.

Roche would have expected her to be tougher. He knew she had been through the same type of process a number of times before. “They’ll come around,” he said. “Who could resist you for long?”

That had been the wrong thing to say. She turned away at once. Her breath came in loud, rough gasps.

“Bleu! Damn it, why are you afraid of me?”

She had made a pact with herself that no one would frighten her again. Now the pact was broken.

“I’m not afraid of you,” she lied. “I’ve got to go.”

“Fine. Here, take these and I’ll wish you goodnight,” he said.

“You don’t understand,” she told him.

“No, I don’t. What is it about me that’s suddenly disgusting to you? We’ve had coffee together, and—”

“All Tarted Up was packed,” she shot back. “The only empty seat in the whole café was at my table. You asked if you could sit there.”

He held out the folders. “We enjoyed talking. Can you say that’s a lie?”

“It’s—not a lie.” She inched forward to take her files and held the whole pile of documents against her chest. “Thank you for picking all these up. I’m . . . I got rattled in there tonight. That’s all.”

Her excuse didn’t cut it with Roche. “That afternoon when I ran into you by the bayou, you seemed glad to walk with me. We talked about a lot of things. You’re great to talk to.” But you’re damaged, even if you do try put up a good front.

“I was interested in the clinic, and your brother Max and the plastic surgery he does. And in your work out there. That’s all. You’re making too much of it.”

The cut didn’t bother him. What he wanted was to figure out the reason for her change in attitude.

“You had lunch with me at Pappy’s Dancehall. I invited you and you accepted. You seemed comfortable. You met Annie and if you didn’t like her, you put on a good act.”

Annie was Max’s wife and managed Pappy’s.

“She’s nice,” Bleu said. “Thank you for introducing us.”

“Last night you were supposed to have dinner with me. You didn’t call. You just let me show up at your place and find out you weren’t there. You didn’t forget, did you?”

“I’m sorry.” The thin skirt of her dress blew back, gripping her thighs.

Roche felt the swell of anger. “You don’t have to be.” She was small, but her shape was sweet, curvy, all woman. What the wind did with her dress against her legs also did things to him.

“Goodnight, then,” she said.

The old wildness attacked him. Bleu hadn’t gone two steps before he reached her and settled a hand on her shoulder. “Look at me.” Her pause let him know this could go either way, but then she turned toward him. Roche stepped up beside her. “I’m not a threat to you,” he said.

Bleu couldn’t hide her spasms of shivering. “Roche,” she whispered. “I don’t know you. You don’t know me.”

He knew himself. This was a test and it wasn’t going well. He had decided to prove he could be alone with a woman he wanted desperately and not make the kind of move that might turn her off.

“It’s time we did know each other,” he said. He didn’t give her a chance to argue.

He kissed her, and her body tensed.

It had been so long since she had felt like this—invaded. Yet Roche didn’t intend to violate her. Her eyes closed and she tried to relax. With the tip of his tongue he made soft, sleek and persuasive passes until her lips parted. Where they touched, she tingled. Her muscles softened and she leaned closer.

Finally it had happened. The cold place she had lived with for so long was thawing. She wanted intimacy. The excitement she’d dreamed of but been denied hammered at her. And it was this man who had stirred the feelings she thought she’d never have.

A tightening low in her belly stole her breath and her attention. Downward between her legs it went, sharper and sharper. Then she felt wet. “Women are weak, they need saving from themselves.”

That voice she thought she had forgotten, the one from her wasted years, sounded so clear that she braced for the shove, the fall to the bed, and the punishing pressure of a big man’s body.

“No.” Bleu jerked her head sideways. “I don’t want this.”

Roche held her firmly, wrapped his arms around her and pressed her face into his shoulder. “Hush,” he said, wishing her damn paperwork wasn’t between them like a shield. For a little while she had started to respond to him, but she was rigid now.

Careful. Don’t push too far.

He used his thumbs to raise her chin, and he brought his mouth to hers again. Holding her against him with the pressure on the back of her head, he emptied her hands and leaned them both sideways to put the pile on the ground.

She kissed him in return, but not like a woman who had done a lot of kissing. With his mouth and tongue, turning her head with his fingers, delving deep, he showed her that this wasn’t about putting one mouth to another. It was a connection, and could be a prelude, a small, erotic promise of a closer joining.

A promise wasn’t enough.

Already hard, he strained against his jeans.

“You’re okay with me,” he whispered, leaning away.

No, she wasn’t entirely, but he had a logical mind and he worked to make it heed him in situations like this one, where lust had taken him over the edge in the past.

His heart thudded. Slowly, gently, he put his hands beneath her arms. Her body was warm, the bodice of her dress made of a silky stuff.

His palms settled on the sides of her breasts.

Again she stiffened in his arms.

He rested his forehead in the curve of Bleu’s neck. Tonight he felt leaden but even that didn’t dampen his need to make love to her. Nothing had ever dampened that need, only kept it in check.

“You feel so good,” he whispered, his lips against the soft skin of Bleu’s neck.

“I don’t . . . I’m not . . .”

“I know,” he murmured. “You’re not casual. I like the way you are.” Moving carefully, he nipped her ear then kissed her shoulder–and wasn’t quick enough to avoid the slap that landed on his face.

He flinched and gave a surprised laugh. Her next swipe cut off the laughter.

“You’ve made your point,” he said, ducking number three.

She dropped her arms to her sides. He could hear her hard breathing, and see the glimmer of tears on her cheeks. “You’re going too fast for me,” she said. “But I shouldn’t have hit you.” She sounded upset, but not sorry.

“I’ll live,” he said. “I deserved what I got.”

Bleu looked at the sky and felt a stillness capture both of them. “Why would you deserve it? You couldn’t know I’m not ready . . . for anything, really.
Maybe one day I’ll tell you why. Not now.” If she could think of the right words, she’d tell him he had already changed her, and she was grateful. That would have to wait.

He moved as if he would touch her but pulled back. “Okay. I’ll ask you to do that, but I’ll give you some time. You need to go home. But I warn you, I’ll be calling you again and inviting you out.”

She looked at the ground. “Did you feel a raindrop?” she asked, knowing she must sound inane.

“No, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it rained.”

“I feel like an idiot.” She arrived at her car with Roche right behind her. “Don’t waste time on me. I’m too much of a liability emotionally. Move on, Roche.”

His heart turned and he realized the sensation was new. “Don’t sell yourself short.” She might not know exactly what he meant. He dealt with the kind of “liabilities” she talked about every day. It could be that they had a chance to heal each other—or create a kind of hell for themselves. Whatever the risks, Roche felt like taking them.

He heard the sound of a door slamming, a muffled sound.

“Where was that?” Bleu said. “The church?”

The church was the closest building to the Parish Hall.

“I don’t think so. Farther away and not so heavy. The Rectory. There’s Cyrus, I think. He’s across the alley.

The window of Bleu’s car was open and she threw everything but her purse inside.

Together they hurried downhill again and past the church. They met Cyrus just inside the gate to Bonanza Alley. “What are you two doing here?” he said, not sounding like himself. “I thought you’d gone home, Bleu.”

“I had to finish up,” she said. “Roche was seeing me to my car. It’s pretty dark to be on your own out here. Is Madge still at the rectory?” Her cousin, Madge Pollard, was Cyrus’s assistant.

“She left with that . . . Sam Bush drove her home. He’s our accountant.” Cyrus stared at her a moment. “I shouldn’t have left you. I wasn’t thinking.”

Cyrus, Roche thought, often seemed to have a great deal on his mind these days.

“Did you see Jim Zachary at the meeting, Bleu? I saw him earlier. He always spends a little time in the church. He said he’d be at the meeting and now I can’t remember if he was.”

“I don’t know him,” Roche said.

Bleu thought about it. “He wasn’t there,” she said slowly. “No, I’m sure he wasn’t. He would have spoken up if he had been. I don’t know why I didn’t miss him at the time.”

“He could have changed his mind,” Roche pointed out.

“No,” Cyrus said, “he couldn’t. Jim does what he says he’ll do. He’s a bachelor and he and the widow who lives next door keep an eye out for each other. She just called me because he told her he’d be home around ten and it’s
almost eleven.”

“Maybe he went out for dinner. Or for drinks with friends.” Bleu said.

“He’s not the kind to go out to dinner. And he doesn’t drink. He’d tell you himself that he’s a recovering alcoholic,” Cyrus sounded distracted. Abruptly, he let out a breath. “At least his car’s gone. He got hung up somewhere. Jim’s always doing things for people. That’s what’s happened.”

“What does he drive?” Roche asked.

Cyrus considered, then said, “A Camry. Black. Fairly old but they don’t seem to wear out, do they?”

“No,” Roche agreed. “There was a black Camry behind my car. I pulled around and parked in front. See. I’m facing this way.”

Bleu turned to see. The cream colored BMW showed up clearly—so did the Camry once all three of them got closer.

“Was he upset about something?” Roche said, visualizing the dark, sluggish bayou beyond the church grounds. How easily a man could slip into those waters.

“I don’t think so,” Cyrus said. “No, he was his usual cheerful self. Mrs. Harper said she tried to call him but he didn’t answer on his cell phone.”

“Would he have his phone on in the church?” Bleu said.

Cyrus shook his head. He pulled a phone from his belt, peered at a piece of paper and pressed numbers. Roche could hear the faint ringing from Cyrus’s
phone.

“Nothing,” he said.

“He’s a nice man,” Bleu said. “He’s really behind building a school.”

Roche nodded. “A lot of people will be.” He looked at Cyrus who frowned absently.

“I’d better check inside the church,” the priest said, and started walking toward the vestibule door. “He could have collapsed in there.” He broke into a run.

Roche and Bleu ran with him and they filed inside the gloomy building. This was Roche’s first visit and he wrinkled his nose at pungent scents he didn’t recognize.

“I don’t see him,” Cyrus said. He went rapidly to the top of the center aisle and scanned from side to side, carefully.

“He always sits in the same place,” Bleu said. “I’ve noticed.”

“Does he?” Cyrus seemed surprised and Roche figured the priest got too involved in what he was doing to see who sat where during services.

“Over there,” Bleu said, pointing fairly far back. “He sits on or near the aisle. And he usually ushers so he’s on his feet quite a bit.”

They all stood with their hands on their hips. “Does he have any relatives at all?” Bleu asked.

“Not that I know of.” Cyrus turned away.

“Did you hear that?” Bleu said, raising her chin and listening.

Roche had. “Sounded like a little drill.”

“Or a phone set to vibrate,” Bleu said.

Cyrus looked at each of them, then covered distance in a hurry. He crossed to the side aisle and started toward the back of the church.

“Wait here,” Roche said and went after him. He expected to hear Bleu’s sandals following on the stone flags and she didn’t disappoint him.

Cyrus skidded to a halt beside a pew. Even at a distance Roche saw how the other man blanched. “Stay where you are, Bleu,” Cyrus snapped out.

Roche caught up with him. “Bastards,” he muttered.

Sideways on the bench, his legs sprawled, one on and one off the seat, his arms twisted above his head, lay an elderly man. His eyes were open—and empty. Clots of congealed blood matted his thick gray hair, spattered his face, the pew and the floor. His lips were drawn back in a grimace and a rolled piece of paper stuck out of his mouth.

“Jim,” Cyrus said softly. He flipped open his phone and called 911.

Bleu’s long, uneven breath meant she had seen the dead man. “He must have been stabbed so violently.” She shuddered but didn’t glance away. “Whatever it was went right through his neck. It cut his jugular.”

Looking at the body from all angles, Roche went behind the pew and bent over to examine the obvious knife wound in the corpse’s neck.

He was too slow to stop Bleu from pulling the yellow flyer from Jim Zachary’s mouth. “Don’t touch,” he said to her. “They’ll want to dust for
fingerprints.”

She puffed up her cheeks and backed away, holding the paper by one top and one bottom corner and opening it.

“Bleu,” Roche said. “Don’t.”

“I already have and I’m glad.” She stared at him. “Do you think he brought this with him?”

“He could have. But why would the killer stuff it in his mouth.”

“To make a point,” Bleu said. “This is one of those flyers that got spread all over, the one telling people not to vote for the school.”


Excerpt Two

Later. Same evening.

“Why are you here?” Bleu Laveau said. She knew Roche Savage had come to the Parish Hall meeting because she was the one giving a presentation. He couldn’t have any interest in plans to build a new school.

He had come for her.

A tall, rangy man, with curly, almost black hair and the bluest eyes she had ever seen, he was in the business of fixing minds. And from his reputation, he was very successful. Somehow he must have found out her secret and she was a challenge to him now.

Only one person in Toussaint was aware of the life she had been trying to outrun for more than three years, and her cousin, Madge Pollard, wasn’t the gossiping type. That didn’t mean Roche couldn’t track her down some other way.

Why didn’t he say something? Dressed in jeans and an open-necked shirt with sleeves rolled back over his forearms, he looked casual but Bleu felt his tension. She inched away from him.

His relaxed stance didn’t match the way he stared at her. As if he was planning his next move.

Roche weighed what he should do. Bleu’s behavior had caught him off-guard. The woman trying to inch away, as if he might pounce on her, wasn’t the one he’d first met a couple of weeks ago over a cup of coffee. Something had happened to make her afraid of him and he wished he didn’t feel so certain about what that was.

Bleu was still moving. With her hair streaming in the wind, she took sideways steps up the slope from the Parish Hall to the spot where she had parked her Honda in the lane above.

Roche didn’t follow her. “Just talk to me,” he said. “That’s all I want. Tell me what’s wrong and I’ll try to make it right.”

She had been the last to leave a packed meeting on plans to build a new Parish school. Everyone else had already driven off.

And the instant she saw him, she had just about run away at first. He didn’t get it.

Bleu’s head pounded.”Please excuse me, ” she said. “I have to get home. Tomorrow’s a full day.”

What she wouldn’t ask him was if he knew about her marriage, about the horrible, personal things she’d been forced to talk about with strangers. If he did know, he could also be aware of the way her former husband had turned sex into something horrifying, and that she had been left with a fear of intimacy.

Yesterday, the potential truth about Roche’s interest in her suddenly became clear. She had been looking forward to having dinner with him when she figured it out: She wasn’t his type. He had another reason for wanting to spend time with her—to see if she would make an interesting case study, maybe?

Roche felt furious that he’s missed some signal she must have given him. He picked up some of the documents and files she’d dropped when she saw him waiting for her. “You’ll need these,” he said.

Last night she stood him up for dinner, but he had put it down to preoccupation with getting ready for tonight’s meeting. Obviously he had been wrong; she’d ducked out of the date to avoid him.

Damn, he was a healer, a seasoned psychiatrist who had only ever wanted to help people, not a man who terrified women in the dark.

When he looked up again, she stood like a stone, utterly still. He saw her honey blond hair glint in the moonlight, saw the glitter in her eyes. In the daylight they were bright green, always questioning, always vulnerable.

She took the paperwork from him. “Thank you.” Her soft words were difficult to hear in the wind.

Bleu Laveau, with her unassuming air and the way she listened closely when he talked, and her passion for the job she’d come to Toussaint to do, had captured him. His fascination with her, the urge to protect—and possess-almost disoriented Roche.

Disorientation was dangerous. He had to be in control of himself at all times.

She must not get any idea of his single-minded focus on her, not unless he could be sure she wanted it.

“I heard your presentation at the meeting,” he told her. And afterward, I stood in the shadow of a wall out here, waiting for you. You and I were meant to be together, Bleu. If someone’s told you I like adventure with my sex, the wilder, the better, they’re more or less right, damn them, but I can be whatever you want me to be. I’m the one in control, not my sex drive. You’ll never be afraid with me.

She looked from him to her car, probably figuring out how fast she could get away from him and what the chances were that he wouldn’t catch up.

About zero, lady.

Bleu felt foolish. She took another small step. He must be adding up symptoms to analyze later. He would be thinking she seemed nervous, and she was.

The only way out of this was to change the subject and calm down. “It will be a fight to build a school here,” she said. “So many people are against it.” Holding her ground wasn’t easy.

“Don’t leave without the rest of your papers,” he said. Bleu had come to Toussaint to do a study on the feasibility of building a new school for St. Cecil’s. The papers were important to her, every one of them.

“A lot of people are angry,” she continued, her voice tight. “The money hasn’t even been raised yet but they’re talking about using it for something else.”

Now she was babbling. One more symptom for his list.

“Yeah,” he said. “Some of them. Not all.”

Roche finished gathering her things and walked toward her. The pale moon did nothing more than suggest a light all but snuffed out, and his eyes looked black, fathomless.

“Some of them made it clear they wish I’d go away,” Bleu said.

Roche would have expected her to be tougher. He knew she had been through the same type of process a number of times before. “They’ll come around,” he said. “Who could resist you for long?”

That had been the wrong thing to say. She turned away at once. Her breath came in loud, rough gasps.

“Bleu! Damn it, why are you afraid of me?”


Excerpt Three

She had made a pact with herself that no one would frighten her again. Now the pact was broken.

“I’m not afraid of you,” she lied. “I’ve got to go.”

“Fine. Here, take these and I’ll wish you goodnight,” he said.

“You don’t understand,” she told him.

“No, I don’t. What is it about me that’s suddenly disgusting to you? We’ve had coffee together, and—”

“All Tarted Up was packed,” she shot back. “The only empty seat in the whole café was at my table. You asked if you could sit there.”

He held out the folders. “We enjoyed talking. Can you say that’s a lie?”

“It’s—not a lie.” She inched forward to take her files and held the whole pile of documents against her chest. “Thank you for picking all these up. I’m . . . I got rattled in there tonight. That’s all.”

Her excuse didn’t cut it with Roche. “That afternoon when I ran into you by the bayou, you seemed glad to walk with me. We talked about a lot of things. You’re great to talk to.” But you’re damaged, even if you do try put up a good front.

“I was interested in the clinic, and your brother Max and the plastic surgery he does. And in your work out there. That’s all. You’re making too much of it.”

The cut didn’t bother him. What he wanted was to figure out the reason for her change in attitude.

“You had lunch with me at Pappy’s Dancehall. I invited you and you accepted. You seemed comfortable. You met Annie and if you didn’t like her, you put on a good act.”

Annie was Max’s wife and managed Pappy’s.

“She’s nice,” Bleu said. “Thank you for introducing us.”

“Last night you were supposed to have dinner with me. You didn’t call. You just let me show up at your place and find out you weren’t there. You didn’t forget, did you?”

“I’m sorry.” The thin skirt of her dress blew back, gripping her thighs.

Roche felt the swell of anger. “You don’t have to be.” She was small, but her shape was sweet, curvy, all woman. What the wind did with her dress against her legs also did things to him.

“Goodnight, then,” she said.

The old wildness attacked him. Bleu hadn’t gone two steps before he reached her and settled a hand on her shoulder. “Look at me.” Her pause let him know this could go either way, but then she turned toward him. Roche stepped up beside her. “I’m not a threat to you,” he said.

Bleu couldn’t hide her spasms of shivering. “Roche,” she whispered. “I don’t know you. You don’t know me.”

He knew himself. This was a test and it wasn’t going well. He had decided to prove he could be alone with a woman he wanted desperately and not make the kind of move that might turn her off.

“It’s time we did know each other,” he said. He didn’t give her a chance to argue.

He kissed her, and her body tensed.

It had been so long since she had felt like this—invaded. Yet Roche didn’t intend to violate her. Her eyes closed and she tried to relax. With the tip of his tongue he made soft, sleek and persuasive passes until her lips parted. Where they touched, she tingled. Her muscles softened and she leaned closer.

Finally it had happened. The cold place she had lived with for so long was thawing. She wanted intimacy. The excitement she’d dreamed of but been denied hammered at her. And it was this man who had stirred the feelings she thought she’d never have.

A tightening low in her belly stole her breath and her attention. Downward between her legs it went, sharper and sharper. Then she felt wet. “Women are weak, they need saving from themselves.”

That voice she thought she had forgotten, the one from her wasted years, sounded so clear that she braced for the shove, the fall to the bed, and the punishing pressure of a big man’s body.

“No.” Bleu jerked her head sideways. “I don’t want this.”

Roche held her firmly, wrapped his arms around her and pressed her face into his shoulder. “Hush,” he said, wishing her damn paperwork wasn’t between them like a shield. For a little while she had started to respond to him, but she was rigid now.

Careful. Don’t push too far.

He used his thumbs to raise her chin, and he brought his mouth to hers again. Holding her against him with the pressure on the back of her head, he emptied her hands and leaned them both sideways to put the pile on the ground.

She kissed him in return, but not like a woman who had done a lot of kissing. With his mouth and tongue, turning her head with his fingers, delving deep, he showed her that this wasn’t about putting one mouth to another. It was a connection, and could be a prelude, a small, erotic promise of a closer joining.

A promise wasn’t enough.

Already hard, he strained against his jeans.

“You’re okay with me,” he whispered, leaning away.

No, she wasn’t entirely, but he had a logical mind and he worked to make it heed him in situations like this one, where lust had taken him over the edge in the past.

His heart thudded. Slowly, gently, he put his hands beneath her arms. Her body was warm, the bodice of her dress made of a silky stuff.

His palms settled on the sides of her breasts.

Again she stiffened in his arms.

He rested his forehead in the curve of Bleu’s neck. Tonight he felt leaden but even that didn’t dampen his need to make love to her. Nothing had ever dampened that need, only kept it in check.

“You feel so good,” he whispered, his lips against the soft skin of Bleu’s neck.

“I don’t . . . I’m not . . .”

“I know,” he murmured. “You’re not casual. I like the way you are.” Moving carefully, he nipped her ear then kissed her shoulder–and wasn’t quick enough to avoid the slap that landed on his face.

He flinched and gave a surprised laugh. Her next swipe cut off the laughter.

“You’ve made your point,” he said, ducking number three.

She dropped her arms to her sides. He could hear her hard breathing, and see the glimmer of tears on her cheeks. “You’re going too fast for me,” she said. “But I shouldn’t have hit you.” She sounded upset, but not sorry.

“I’ll live,” he said. “I deserved what I got.”

Bleu looked at the sky and felt a stillness capture both of them. “Why would you deserve it? You couldn’t know I’m not ready . . . for anything, really.
Maybe one day I’ll tell you why. Not now.” If she could think of the right words, she’d tell him he had already changed her, and she was grateful. That would have to wait.

He moved as if he would touch her but pulled back. “Okay. I’ll ask you to do that, but I’ll give you some time. You need to go home. But I warn you, I’ll be calling you again and inviting you out.”

She looked at the ground. “Did you feel a raindrop?” she asked, knowing she must sound inane.

“No, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it rained.”

“I feel like an idiot.” She arrived at her car with Roche right behind her. “Don’t waste time on me. I’m too much of a liability emotionally. Move on, Roche.”


Excerpt Four

He heard the sound of a door slamming, a muffled sound.

“Where was that?” Bleu said. “The church?”

The church was the closest building to the Parish Hall.

“I don’t think so. Farther away and not so heavy. The Rectory. There’s Cyrus, I think. He’s across the alley.

The window of Bleu’s car was open and she threw everything but her purse inside.

Together they hurried downhill again and past the church. They met Cyrus just inside the gate to Bonanza Alley. “What are you two doing here?” he said, not sounding like himself. “I thought you’d gone home, Bleu.”

“I had to finish up,” she said. “Roche was seeing me to my car. It’s pretty dark to be on your own out here. Is Madge still at the rectory?” Her cousin, Madge Pollard, was Cyrus’s assistant.

“She left with that . . . Sam Bush drove her home. He’s our accountant.” Cyrus stared at her a moment. “I shouldn’t have left you. I wasn’t thinking.”

Cyrus, Roche thought, often seemed to have a great deal on his mind these days.

“Did you see Jim Zachary at the meeting, Bleu? I saw him earlier. He always spends a little time in the church. He said he’d be at the meeting and now I can’t remember if he was.”

“I don’t know him,” Roche said.

Bleu thought about it. “He wasn’t there,” she said slowly. “No, I’m sure he wasn’t. He would have spoken up if he had been. I don’t know why I didn’t miss him at the time.”

“He could have changed his mind,” Roche pointed out.

“No,” Cyrus said, “he couldn’t. Jim does what he says he’ll do. He’s a bachelor and he and the widow who lives next door keep an eye out for each other. She just called me because he told her he’d be home around ten and it’s
almost eleven.”

“Maybe he went out for dinner. Or for drinks with friends.” Bleu said.

“He’s not the kind to go out to dinner. And he doesn’t drink. He’d tell you himself that he’s a recovering alcoholic,” Cyrus sounded distracted. Abruptly, he let out a breath. “At least his car’s gone. He got hung up somewhere. Jim’s always doing things for people. That’s what’s happened.”

“What does he drive?” Roche asked.

Cyrus considered, then said, “A Camry. Black. Fairly old but they don’t seem to wear out, do they?”

“No,” Roche agreed. “There was a black Camry behind my car. I pulled around and parked in front. See. I’m facing this way.”

Bleu turned to see. The cream colored BMW showed up clearly—so did the Camry once all three of them got closer.

“Was he upset about something?” Roche said, visualizing the dark, sluggish bayou beyond the church grounds. How easily a man could slip into those waters.

“I don’t think so,” Cyrus said. “No, he was his usual cheerful self. Mrs. Harper said she tried to call him but he didn’t answer on his cell phone.”

“Would he have his phone on in the church?” Bleu said.

Cyrus shook his head. He pulled a phone from his belt, peered at a piece of paper and pressed numbers. Roche could hear the faint ringing from Cyrus’s
phone.

“Nothing,” he said.

“He’s a nice man,” Bleu said. “He’s really behind building a school.”

Roche nodded. “A lot of people will be.” He looked at Cyrus who frowned absently.

“I’d better check inside the church,” the priest said, and started walking toward the vestibule door. “He could have collapsed in there.” He broke into a run.

Roche and Bleu ran with him and they filed inside the gloomy building. This was Roche’s first visit and he wrinkled his nose at pungent scents he didn’t recognize.

“I don’t see him,” Cyrus said. He went rapidly to the top of the center aisle and scanned from side to side, carefully.

“He always sits in the same place,” Bleu said. “I’ve noticed.”

“Does he?” Cyrus seemed surprised and Roche figured the priest got too involved in what he was doing to see who sat where during services.

“Over there,” Bleu said, pointing fairly far back. “He sits on or near the aisle. And he usually ushers so he’s on his feet quite a bit.”

They all stood with their hands on their hips. “Does he have any relatives at all?” Bleu asked.

“Not that I know of.” Cyrus turned away.

“Did you hear that?” Bleu said, raising her chin and listening.

Roche had. “Sounded like a little drill.”

“Or a phone set to vibrate,” Bleu said.

Cyrus looked at each of them, then covered distance in a hurry. He crossed to the side aisle and started toward the back of the church.

“Wait here,” Roche said and went after him. He expected to hear Bleu’s sandals following on the stone flags and she didn’t disappoint him.

Cyrus skidded to a halt beside a pew. Even at a distance Roche saw how the other man blanched. “Stay where you are, Bleu,” Cyrus snapped out.

Roche caught up with him. “Bastards,” he muttered.

Sideways on the bench, his legs sprawled, one on and one off the seat, his arms twisted above his head, lay an elderly man. His eyes were open—and empty. Clots of congealed blood matted his thick gray hair, spattered his face, the pew and the floor. His lips were drawn back in a grimace and a rolled piece of paper stuck out of his mouth.

“Jim,” Cyrus said softly. He flipped open his phone and called 911.

Bleu’s long, uneven breath meant she had seen the dead man. “He must have been stabbed so violently.” She shuddered but didn’t glance away. “Whatever it was went right through his neck. It cut his jugular.”

Looking at the body from all angles, Roche went behind the pew and bent over to examine the obvious knife wound in the corpse’s neck.

He was too slow to stop Bleu from pulling the yellow flyer from Jim Zachary’s mouth. “Don’t touch,” he said to her. “They’ll want to dust for
fingerprints.”

She puffed up her cheeks and backed away, holding the paper by one top and one bottom corner and opening it.

“Bleu,” Roche said. “Don’t.”

“I already have and I’m glad.” She stared at him. “Do you think he brought this with him?”

“He could have. But why would the killer stuff it in his mouth.”

“To make a point,” Bleu said. “This is one of those flyers that got spread all over, the one telling people not to vote for the school.”

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