A Grave Mistake – Excerpt

on November 15, 2012

A Grave Mistake

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

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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."