Authors: Jenna Mills
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Suspense
As always, so many people deserve thanks for helping
me bring this story to life….
My pals Cathy and Linda, for bullet-proofing.
My agent, Roberta, for believing in Cami and Jack—
and in me.
My editor, Wanda, for your wise gentle guidance—
and your patience!
And of course, my husband and daughter, for…. well,
for everything. Because that’s what you are.
heriff Jacques Savoie liked it nice and slow.
Stepping from his squad car into the stinging rain, he didn’t run for the shelter of the shadowy old house, just took a moment to savor the anticipation.
He’d returned to the sleepy town of his birth for the simplicity. He’d come back to Bayou d’Espere for the easy pace, the predictability. In the spring it stormed. The summers were hot and muggy and sometimes hosted a hurricane or two. Fall brought gray skies, geese and football. Winters were mild. Snow didn’t fall and bombs didn’t rip through cafés. Trucks didn’t blow up, and buildings didn’t fall in on you.
Each peachy sunrise didn’t simply mean say your prayers and see if you can live another day.
He’d come home to savor his coffee in the morning and play catch with his dog in the afternoon, make love with his wife in the evening.
But buried deep, the soldier he’d been for the past twelve years had festered. That’s why he’d thrown his hat into the race for sheriff: to channel the restlessness that had once kept him alive, before it channeled him. The life he’d come back to was not the life he’d left behind. He’d been a kid then.
Now he was a man.
Narrowing his eyes, Jack took off through the late-spring storm, the way he’d done so many times before. Except this time he rubbed a hand against the ache in his thigh—and walked.
Once the Greek Revival plantation had been the belle of the parish. Now like so many other buildings in a post-Katrina world, Whispering Oaks stood in disrepair. Some wanted to tear her down, clear the land.
But one desecration, Jack maintained, didn’t sanctify another.
His foot came down against a cypress knee and twisted, but he barely felt the pain. He passed the Condemned sign he’d driven into the ground the week before, as much a dare as a command. Keep Out, it invited. And just as he’d anticipated, someone had broken in anyway. They were inside now. They’d tripped the silent alarm.
And alone in the darkness, that someone had no idea the game was about to blow up in their face.
Nice. And. Slow.
The first break-in, back in March, had seemed benign enough. Nothing had been taken. Then came the broken window at the historical society, the stolen photographs from the visitors’ center, the missing files at the library.
And the fire.
It all added up to too much suspicious activity in his parish.
At the dilapidated stairs leading to the porch, Jack resisted the urge to break into a run and kick open the door. The wood was old, rotting. A good shove and it would rip from its hinges, and he’d be free to go after the fool who’d walked into his trap. It was too pathetically easy. Plant a little information, spread a few rumors, then sit back to see who came sniffing around.
Slow and steady, he reminded himself. That’s how he liked it. That’s what worked.
That’s what kept a man alive.
Jack followed the sweeping veranda to the right, where the window he’d left unlocked stood open, allowing the wind to push rain inside.
Quietly, he bent and stepped into the darkness of the forgotten dining room.
We shouldn’t be here.
The memory jarred him. He straightened and twisted around, didn’t want to see her. But through the shadows she was there, blond hair long and tangled, eyes so blue and trusting.
Since when have you been afraid of anything?
Jack’s fingers tightened around the Maglite he’d carried in from the squad car. But he did not turn it on.
It could be kids upstairs with blankets and pillows and a joint. For years the old plantation had been a favorite hideaway. Legend said the house was haunted, that sometimes during the dead of night, you could hear the trill of laughter—or the wail of crying. His granny swore she’d once heard horses and gunfire. Jack didn’t know how many nights he and Gabe had spent with a six-pack of beer…waiting.
But he knew exactly how many nights he’d spent with candles and a bottle of cheap wine…doing anything but waiting.
We should go.
From upstairs, the thump broke the memory. Pivoting, he pulled the Glock from his holster and headed for the back staircase. It was all the talk about the book, he knew. The rumors were everywhere about the true crime writer soon to arrive in town. There was even talk about a movie. Folks were whsipering about the legend again, the murder. They all wanted to be experts, included…
Jack had other ideas.
This is wrong…I told you no…
The memory circled through the darkness, softer, like the slow slide of silk around his chest. And as his foot hit the landing, his thigh, a brutally accurate barometer, throbbed—and the scent of lavender seduced. He stood there, his jeans and button-down shirt plastered to his body, his eyes narrowed and his breath hot, and felt something inside him start to slice.
Nice. And. Slow.
He’d been old enough to know better.
On a violent rush, he strode toward the door he’d locked just that morning, but which now stood cracked. And this time there was nothing nice or slow about his movement—or his intent. Because all he could think was fast. And hard.
Just like so many other times since murder came to Bayou d’Espere.
At the end of the hall he stopped without pushing inside the small, nearly empty room. He forced himself to stand in the warm muggy shadows, and wait.
A faint light played through the narrow opening. The size and shape of a flashlight beam, it slipped along the hardwood floor and slid over the bait he’d left against the far walls. Five crates, stacked neatly, all sealed.
His blood quickened. Teenagers wouldn’t be this quiet. Teenagers wouldn’t be this methodical. This careful.
Oh, God, oh, God, talk to me….
Jack shoved at the memory, shoved hard. It was the house that brought her back, the house with all its nooks and crannies and secrets, the house that made him think of his best friend’s wild-child sister when he needed to think only of the perp on the other side of the door.
Slowly the light returned to the first crate, and though the scrape of a branch against the window killed the sound, he could tell the flashlight had been set down. Movement then, a distorted, elongated shadow stretching across the dusty floor.
Jack edged closer. Only a few more seconds and—
She stepped from the shadows with a grace that kicked him in the gut. Tall, willowy, dressed in black, she moved with a quiet stealth, the measured steps of the last mourner emerging from the canopy to approach the gaping hole in the ground. As if she didn’t want to go. But couldn’t make herself turn back.
There’d been nothing stealthy mentioned in the eyewitness accounts about the break-ins and the fire. A man, they’d said. Middle-aged, slight of shoulder. Dark hair, Grace Ann insisted, but Louise swore there were streaks of silver.
The surveillance camera outside the visitors’ center confirmed her account.
But this…There’d been no mention of a woman. No mention of long legs and a narrow waist, not one word about slender shoulders and a neck that looked made for a string of pearls, wisps of blond hair slipping from beneath a baseball cap. He stood there and watched her, stood there and felt the slow burn in his chest branch out to the rest of his body.
Oblivious to his presence, she stepped toward the crate he’d set out as bait. Anyone in their right mind would realize nothing of value would be left in a deserted plantation, just waiting for vandals or vagrants. Anyone with a lick of sense would know that anything that mattered had long since been removed.
But here she was, this woman standing where a patchwork quilt had once protected from the cold and the dust.
In front of the tallest crate she put her hands to the outside and remained that way a long moment, with her face angled away from him and her body alert. Then she let out a hard breath as she lifted the large container from the stack and lowered it to the ground.
“Looking for something?” His words were slow, deliberate, laced with the deceptive laziness that had once been called his bedroom voice.
And the woman went completely still.
“Funny thing about stormy nights,” he continued in that same warm, intimate tone, as if he hadn’t just stone-cold busted her. “You never know what you’re going to find.”
Slowly, she straightened, and he realized why her clothes clung to her body.
She was as wet as he was.
“Now be a doll and show me your hands,” he said.
Again, she obeyed.
That should have pleased him. He was a man who liked others to do as he said, as he wanted.
But he found no pleasure in the way she stood so unnaturally still, with her long-sleeved shirt and dark jeans clinging to her body.
Shoving at the door, he lunged into the room and stabbed on his Maglite. “Got any friends here,
” he drawled, executing a quick sweep of the space. “Or is it just the two of us?”
Raindrops battered the French doors leading to the balcony, but no sound came from within the room—or anywhere else in the house. The woman, with her feet shoulder-width apart and her gloved hands lifted, remained motionless.
The tightening in his chest was automatic. Violent crime was rare in his parish. Drunken and disorderly conduct, sure; bar brawls and marital spats. But there hadn’t been a murder in—
There hadn’t been a murder in a long time.
Espere Parish was lazy, but Jack was not. And with no one to watch his back, he wasn’t about to risk an unannounced accomplice barging in from behind.
Nudging his boot against the door, he closed it and flipped the lock.
She made no move to fight him, but instinct fine-tuned over the skies of Iraq would not let him relax. That kind of composure…that kind of calm in the face of fire…he knew better than to trust it.
She should be scared. For all she knew he could be anyone. He’d found her alone in the middle of nowhere, late at night with a storm raging outside. By the time he finished with her…
The thought sickened. The lightning had long since moved on, but in his mind it flashed with vicious brilliance, and for a punishing heartbeat he was in Florida again, standing in the Medical Examiner’s office. Trying to breathe. Praying the body wasn’t that of his best friend’s sister.
Cold. That’s what he remembered. The kind of bone-deep cold that spread like a toxin through every cell of the body.
The woman—the girl, he corrected—had not died a pretty death. And she had not been the woman he’d been looking for.
But this woman just stood there,
just freaking stood there,
with her back to him. He could be on her in a heartbeat and—
Either she didn’t care, or wasn’t the least bit concerned.
He wasn’t sure which possibility disturbed him more.
“I didn’t really expect anyone tonight,” he said. Finally he moved, started toward her so slow and steady that the impact of his boots against the scuffed-up wood floor barely made a sound. This was when she should have flinched. This was when she should have tensed, readied her counterattack.
The fact she didn’t fired his blood in ways he hadn’t experienced since his return to Bayou d’Espere two years before.
Closer, he kept his eyes on her hands, held up and out from her body. If she so much as moved—
He kept right on toward her. “Here I was all set to crawl into bed when the station called.” Even now, after eighteen months as sheriff, the sound of the phone on a rainy night had jolted.
“That’s right, sugar. The station.” He’d lunged out of bed. He’d almost tripped on Beauregard. And goddamn it, when he’d reached for the phone, his hand had wanted to shake. “You see,
there’s a motion sensor downstairs, and when you let yourself on in, you also sent the sheriff a nice little announcement of your arrival. So here I am.”
Finally she moved. Her shoulders dropped, as if for the first time she realized how much trouble she was in.
“Now be a sweetheart,” he said from a few feet behind her, “and turn around for me. Nice…and…slow.”
It had been a long time since anticipation had licked quite so deep.
But for the first time since he’d announced his presence, she denied him. She didn’t turn as he’d instructed, didn’t offer so much as one word in protest or explanation, in defense. It was as if she were just…waiting, for the right moment.
And through the shifting shadows, Jack smiled. Maybe some men would slip into this woman’s trap, but not any man who knew Saura Robichaud. His best friend’s cousin had made quite a name for herself as a P.I. by allowing men to write her off as another harmless, pretty face—and body.
“You leave me no choice then,” he said. “If you don’t want to turn around, I need you to go on over to that wall, put your hands against it.”
He could take her; he knew that. No matter what stunt she pulled, he could have her on the ground beneath him before she put up a whisper of a fight. He could straddle her, hold her down, make it excruciatingly clear who was in charge.
“Then we’ll talk,” he said, his voice a hoarse rasp. “Starting with what you’re doing here.”
Over the remnants of the storm, he would have sworn he heard her release a breath.
“Don’t make this harder than it needs to be,” he advised softly, and finally she moved, stepped away from the beam of light and toward the shadowy wall, splaying her gloved hands on the cracked plaster.
He closed in on her, stopping only when the warmth of her body whispered against his. “Good girl.” The need to lift his hands and—
Not a need. He didn’t
to touch her. Those were words of lovers, not of cops and suspects. He
to touch her.
“It didn’t have to be this way,” he said violating all training and protocol. He didn’t owe this woman an explanation or apology. She was the one who’d broken the law. “But you’ve left me no choice here.” And with the words he lifted his hands toward her rib cage.