The first mistake
Dead: one ordinary man. Just the latest in a string of losers in the wrong place at the worst time. Not the kind of case to yank New Orleans homicide detective Guy Gautreaux back from his leave of absence in Toussaint, Louisiana.
The second mistake
There's someone in Toussaint Guy will do anything to protect. Jilly Gable is desperate to find the love of the family who abandoned her as a child. And when the wife of a powerful New Orleans antiques dealer and loan shark sweeps into town claiming to be her mother, Jilly is all too willing to love and forget.
The final reckoning
Slowly and methodically, evil closes in on Jilly, and only the truth -- and Guy -- can save her. Connecting the dots between the Big Easy and Toussaint all but cinches his case, but Jilly and Guy are still in danger. They have only each other for protection.
But will that be enough?
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
New York Times bestselling author Stella Cameron is the award-winning author of contemporary and historical romantic-suspense novels. There are more than eight million copies of her books in print, including Kiss Them Goodbye, Cold Day in July, Tell Me Why, Glass Houses and Key West. Stella and her husband, Jerry, make their home in Washington State.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 whether 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 as if they were painted there, and the pea-green surface of the bayou might have been set-up Jell-O. 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 barbecues 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 part-grown black mutt with long, silky hair 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. 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 headed toward the dock. She turned and walked backward a few paces. "I'm going to check on the pastries, mind."
Jilly hurried downhill.
Guy was leaning over, pushing 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 the 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 gave it his all. He seemed grateful to Homer and treated 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 couldn't even manage to crack a welcoming smile.
He cocked his head to one side and took off his straw Stetson, then 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 a 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 his dish-water-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 woman he'd gotten really close to.
Yeah, Jilly thought, she just wanted him to reassure her that she shouldn't question her mother'...
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