Whet your appetite for Deborah's books with these tasty excerpts.
The paint-chipped sign in the shape of a tea cup creaked on rusty hinges, barely set in motion by a lethargic breeze. The words "Madame Jazeem -- Fortune Teller" written in curled, smoky letters floated above credit card symbols and "All sales final. No refunds."
Chuckling under her breath, Trudy Tucker fanned her face with the paper fan she'd bought on Bourbon Street and looked up and down Camp Street. For late February, it was unseasonably humid even for Louisiana and only a few people were out. Her gaze lingered on a couple holding hands and laughing as her thoughts winged to her own love -- Levi Wolfe, who was waiting for her back in Atlanta in the penthouse she now shared with him. Her heart constricted with longing. Was he thinking of her right now as she was thinking of him?
Three children riding bikes zipped by and waved at a woman sitting across the street on her porch stoop, shelling peanuts and tapping her foot to whatever was playing in her earbuds.
Trudy turned back to examine the wrap-around metal roof, seldom seen any more in New Orleans. They'd been used primarily on old neighborhood groceries. She congratulated herself for squirreling away that bit of architectural trivia. Levi would be proud of her. Levi, with his vast knowledge of subjects as varied as architecture, psychology, and, oh yes, all things paranormal.
"I know you hate the commercial part of it," Quintara said, breaking into her thoughts as she nodded at the sign overhead. "But it's necessary in this day and age. When you work for free, giving away your gifts, people don't value them. It's a fact, dear."
She knew that Quintara, her psychic mentor, referred to the credit cards and "no refunds" warning on the sign, although she hadn't been dwelling on that. But Quintara liked to think that she could read minds, so Trudy didn't correct her. Instead, she placed an arm across her friend's rounded shoulders and hugged her. This little jaunt with Quintara to New Orleans to attend a psychic fair was a gift after six months of nonstop upheaval mixed with extreme bliss. Last fall Trudy had agreed to work on a serial killer case with Levi and Quintara that had completely changed her life. For the good, she conceded, but she needed a few days away from the whirlwind that was Levi Wolfe just to center herself. Spending time with Quintara was an extra dollop of divine.
"You're preaching to the choir, Quintara. I like being paid the same as the next psychic."
Quintara patted her hand. "You've been doing well for yourself, dear, and I'm proud of you. You know that."
Trudy dropped a kiss on her forehead. Quintara was her and Levi's tireless cheerleader. "Thank you. So, you met Jazeem . . . when did you say? Twenty years ago?"
"Something like that." Quintara stared up at the sign, watching it swing slightly to and fro, its hinges singing. "Right here in this place. She was just starting out and it was my first visit to New Orleans. This place just drew me in." Quintara's bright brown eyes shone in the failing light. "It was destiny, my dear. We've been fast friends ever since. You'll get on like gangbusters, I promise you." Leaning closer, she whispered, "When it comes to reading tea leaves, nobody does it better than Jazeem."
Suddenly, the door swung open and purple-tinted light fell across them. A girl, probably seventeen or eighteen, stood on the threshold. Her straight, black hair was shiny and her brown eyes were wiser than her years. A white crop top and low-rider pink jeans exposed a large wedge of creamy brown skin and an "inny" navel. She smiled and deep dimples buried into her cheeks.
"Jazeem expects you, Ms. Quintara and guest." Her sneakers squeaked on the gray linoleum as she stepped back. "I'm Kit Kat, her protégé. Please, enter."
Trudy hesitated, so Quintara breezed right past her.
"Where's Jazeem?" Quintara glanced around. "Jazeem! Get yourself in here. I know you're hiding back there so that you can make a grand entrance."
The interior of the front room was dark, lit only by a few tea lights and two small table lamps that had sheer purple scarves draped over them. From what Trudy could make out, the walls were dove gray. A ceiling fan whirred, stirring the long, flowing drapes at the two front windows and the wind chimes hanging from the exposed ceiling beams. The usual posters of astrological signs and seeing eyes adorned the walls. A round table just big enough to seat two or three people held reign over the room. A silver tea service on an ornate silver tray sat on the table next to scattered Tarot cards.
It was a shotgun style house, but the rooms beyond it were obscured by a deep plum velvet curtain with gold tassels along the hem.
"You're her protégé." Smiling, Quintara ran her detecting gaze up and down the girl. "How old are you, dearest?"
"How long have you been studying under Jazeem?" Trudy asked her.
"I wish I'd started that young." Trudy shrugged. "I'm a novice like you."
The curtain over the doorway parted and a strikingly sexy woman entered the room. She wore a leopard body suit that left little to the imagination and her brown hair streaked with white sprang from her head in a blown-out Afro. Smoky, cleverly applied make-up emphasized her almond-shaped brown eyes and a bronzer made her skin glisten in the dimly lit room. High cheekbones, a haughty nose, and full lips combined to grace her with unquestionable beauty.
"You think she is a novice, Kit Kat?" Her voice went along with her package -- exotic and memorable. A strong Creole accent shaped her words. Although she spoke to the girl, her gaze never left Trudy.
"No, Madame. Her aura is too strong to be newly born.""Sans doute." Trudy shifted uneasily. She believed she'd just been called a liar, but in a complimentary way. The woman's gaze slipped over to Quintara and a smile of pure joy spread across her beautiful face.
"How it delights me to see you again, mon amie." She held out her long-fingered hands and grasped Quintara's bejeweled ones. "I dreamt of this meeting last night and it has filled me with excitement, and ultimately I hope, relief."
The two women embraced, holding tightly to each other as the seconds ticked by. Trudy and Kit Kat exchanged a bewildered smile before the two women finally separated.
"Relief?" Quintara's penciled brows arched. "I am intrigued. You think I will bring you relief?"
"Not you so much as your protégé." Jazeem nodded in Trudy's direction. Stepping around Quintara, she held out her hand to Trudy. "I am Jazeem, Trudy Tucker. Welcome."
"Nice to meet you." Trudy shook her hand. Her skin was cool and soft. "You think I'll relieve you of something? I hope it's not a debt . . . or gas."
The others chuckled at her little joke. Jazeem kept hold of Trudy's hand and led her to the table.
"S'il vous plaît, sit. You, too, Quintara. Let's have some tea and see what the leaves say."
They sat at the table while Kit Kat did the honors of pouring the tea into dragonware china cups. Before Kit Kat poured the dark amber tea into her cup, Trudy lifted it toward the light to admire the translucent image of a geisha girl's face in the bottom of it.
"Lovely," she murmured. "My family has pawn shops, so I've gained a working knowledge of antiques and collectibles. This is a treasure of a tea service." She set the cup down so that Kit Kat could finish pouring.
"It was my grandmother's. She bought it right here on the docks of New Orleans." She motioned to the Tarot cards scattered on the table. "Gather those into a pile, won't you? Make some more room for yourself." She took a sip of the tea as she watched Trudy pick up the cards and stack them. "Do you really see yourself as a novice?"
"Well, yes. I haven't been promoting myself as a psychic for very long."
"But you've had the gift your whole life."
Trudy set aside the deck of cards and tasted the brew. It was strong with hints of orange. "I didn't try to reconcile with it until I was an adult. Until I met Quintara."
"You fought it." Jazeem surmised.
"I fought and it won."
Jazeem lifted one shoulder in a lazy shrug. "As for me, I prayed to be special. My grandmother was a voyant, but it skipped my mother's generation. I had older and younger sisters, but none had shown any signs of the third eye. Then, when I was ten years old, my grandmother summoned me. She poured tea, read the leaves, and told me I had the gift. I was the one to carry it on. I felt as if I'd been crowned. A coronation, if you will. From that day on, she schooled me."
From the rooms behind the plum curtain came a rattling of what sounded like pots and pans. Jazeem looked at Kit Kat and they both rolled their eyes and heaved huge, put-upon sighs.
"Is someone else here?" Trudy asked.
"Just Henri," Kit Kat said, replacing the teapot in its cozy. "I'll go settle him."
"Tell him to scat like a cat." Jazeem flicked her hands in a shooing motion before turning back to Trudy and Quintara. "He is a ghost who comes here every week or so. He was a chef and he likes to stack and unstack my skillets. La peste." She hissed the last like a feline.
Trudy swallowed the tension that corkscrewed in her throat. Talk of earthbound spirits unsettled her. She didn't want to believe in them, but she had little choice.
"Ghosts bother you?" Jazeem asked, clearly catching on to Trudy's apprehension. "Have you ever seen one?"
"One. I've seen one. My . . . uh . . . spirit guide, I suppose you could call her. Ethel. She pops up every so often."
Jazeem smiled, knowingly. "I have seen more ghosts than I can count." She drank more of the tea. "A few nights ago I was driving home from visiting friends in the countryside. I passed some cotton fields and I saw . . . oh, a dozen or more spirits in those rows, picking cotton and singing low. I could barely hear them." She looked at Quintara. "Former slaves. Why would they go back there?"
Quintara shrugged in bewilderment. "They're caught, I suppose. Caught in a loop of time. Poor souls."
"Can they be released?" Trudy asked.
"The right person could do so, I think." Jazeem lifted her gaze slowly from her nearly empty cup to Trudy and then to the engagement ring on her finger. "Your Levi could set them free."Your Levi. The sound of that made her heart expand a little, sending a ribbon of giddiness through her. An image of him filled her mind -- his achingly handsome face with his piercing dark blue eyes, strong jawline, perfect nose, and barest of a cleft in his chin. She ached for him. Seven months ago if someone would have said that the enigmatic, sexy, gorgeous, talented, Levi Wolfe would want to work with her, much less become her fiancé, she would have busted a gut laughing. The world was full of strange, inexplicable occurrences and her relationship with Levi was one of them.
"You like working with him?" Jazeem asked. "It's a good partnership?"
"And he protects you? He shields you?"
"Um . . . well, yes. As much as he possibly can."
"C'est bien. That makes me feel better about this."
Trudy furrowed her brow and glanced at Quintara, who also looked worried and confused. "Better about what, exactly?"
"Drink the rest and let me read your leaves."
Not sure about the whole tea leaves thing now, Trudy swallowed the last of the brew and handed the cup to Jazeem, who had slipped on a pair of cat-eye glasses. With obvious relish, she peered at the scattering of tea leaves marring the geisha's face. Her gaze flicked up to Trudy a couple of times before she finally spoke.
"No surprise, the spiritual signs are strong. Incredibly strong. Beside you is a man. A troubled soul, but a man with a pure heart."
"Levi," Quintara said what everyone was thinking.
"Yes. You've undergone many changes and you don't handle change very well. There are more changes to come. They will build more patience in you." She squinted and studied the leaves for a few moments. "There is danger ahead, of course, given what you do. Ah, here is a woman -- a wily, worldly woman, who will try to take what's yours. There will always be females testing the bonds of your relationship." She glanced over at Kit Kat and then at Trudy with a quick grin. "You must learn how to deflect them while keeping your bond strong with your man." Looking at the tea leaves again, she wrinkled her nose. "There is a man in your future who is a real threat. He isn't who he appears to be. He is set on disrupting your life because he is riddled with jealousy. You must step carefully and keep Levi always at your side. You see and feel more than he does, but he knows and understands more than you do about the world."
Trudy smiled grimly. "I won't argue with that."
Jazeem tapped her long fingernails against the table for a few seconds as she studied the leaves. "You lack confidence in yourself and this holds you back. Quit fighting your instincts and you will become stronger and happier. You have a task ahead. A personal task that has to do with someone you love. It will take time, but the rewards will be sweet."
She's talking about Levi, Trudy thought. Sorting through all his phobias and inner demons had become a priority for her. And Jazeem was right. It would take time. She filed away everything else Jazeem had said for a closer inspection later. "Is that all?"
Jazeem nodded and set the cup down. "The rest you already know."
Trudy leaned forward to examine the leaves for herself. She gleaned nothing from them. They just looked like little brown flecks and globs. "Will I get married?"
"Oui!" Jazeem's laugh was like a distant, melodic fog horn and Quintara joined in with her girlish belly laugh. Jazeem's fingers closed around Trudy's and she rubbed her thumb lightly across the large tear-drop shaped diamond surrounded by dark blue sapphires that Levi had chosen for her. "We don't need the leaves for that! You have this, don't you? Just set the date and do it."
"From what I hear, Trudy is the one dragging her feet," Quintara offered up.
Trudy scrunched up her nose. "I'm not dragging my feet. I'm just trying to plant them firmly before I dive into another deep end. I mean, marriage is a big deal. And we've only been together for a few months."
"Since September," Quintara said for Jazeem's benefit. "But they met a year before that."
"The key word being 'met,'" Trudy emphasized. "We saw each other and exchanged a dozen words at a few of Quintara's Psychic Roundtable sessions. But I never dreamed that he'd give me a second glance, much less want to be with me." Sometimes, it was still hard for her to believe. Levi was a modern day Prince Charming and she was . . . well, more like Cinderella before the Fairy Godmother did a number on her.
"Lack of confidence," Jazeem noted, her eyes warm with wisdom before she closed them slowly. Everything in the room seemed to still -- even the candle flames -- for a few moments before Jazeem opened her eyes again. "You have always felt as if you're second best. You've taken the back seat, purposefully hiding in the shadows so that you wouldn't be made fun of or ridiculed."
Trudy shifted in the chair, feeling like a specimen under a microscope. She couldn't argue with the woman, but she didn't want to agree with her either. Jazeem's sudden smile felt like a beam of sunlight falling on her from a cloudy sky.
"But you're emerging from the shadows. It's scary, but it's good. Think of it as breaking out of a cocoon to spread your lovely wings. Let us see you, Trudy. No more hiding."
Kit Kat came back into the room, glancing from one person to another. "Henri hit the road. He wasn't happy about it, though."
"Ah, well." Jazeem's hand slipped from Trudy's. "That one is never happy." She leaned back and crossed her arms. "I have a tale to tell you, Trudy. It is an odd tale and one that, I know, will haunt you as it has haunted me. Will you allow this telling?"
Trudy looked at Quintara from the corner of her eye. The woman was fairly glowing with excitement and anticipation. Quintara loved this spooky crap. Trudy . . . not so much. However, she gathered her courage and nodded. "Sure. Go ahead."
"Right before Christmas I had a client in. A well-off lady. She comes to me two or three times a year. This particular time, she brought a man with her. She introduced him as her brother. He was in a wheelchair and he sat over there, by the door." She nodded in the direction. "I did her reading. She likes the Tarot cards." Jazeem picked up the deck and then turned over the top card. She hunched her shoulders as if she had a sudden chill.
Trudy stared at the Death card. From her basic knowledge of the Tarot meanings, this one signified change. Wait . . . was Jazeem reading her cards? She groaned inwardly, realizing she'd fallen into a trap when the cunning woman had asked her to pick up the cards and stack them, which was the first step in a Tarot reading.
Jazeem tapped the card with a long fingernail. "Changes for you. See?"
Trudy tensed in anticipation of the next card. A year ago she'd had her Tarot cards read by one of Quintara's "students." Since the woman was new at it, Trudy hadn't put much stock into the reading -- until the prophecies had begun to come true. The woman had said she would be given the opportunity of a lifetime that would greatly impact her professional and personal life. She'd said that Trudy would relocate and that wealth was in her future.
"Back to my time with the wealthy client . . . it was a difficult reading that day," Jazeem said, capturing Trudy's full attention again. "The man caused a disturbance. He had brought with him many tortured souls. They swarmed around him with open mouths as if they were crying or screaming. I couldn't hear them. I could sense them. See them." She looked toward Quintara. "You understand?"
"Yes. The souls were attached to him somehow?"
"Oui. That's a good word. Attached. They could not escape, although they wanted to leave this world for the next." She angled forward a little, her expression so serious that it chilled the blood. "I believe this man took their lives and that's why they circled him. Until he is punished or dead, they are tethered to him. I don't know why. Maybe they're angry and wish to torment him more than they wish to move on." Jazeem revealed another card. "Ah-ha! The Empress."
Trudy shook her head. "I'm not well versed in Tarot."
"The Empress teaches us to be kind and put your heart into your undertakings. She also predicts an impending marriage." Jazeem smiled impishly at Trudy and then Quintara.
"Oh." Trudy shook her head, feeling flushed and a little giddy. All the talk about marriage was getting to her. "So, back to this man with the ghosts all around him. Who is he?"
"Forté. Desmond Forté. He lives with her. I don't know why he is in the wheelchair. I didn't ask anything about him because I was so . . . so . . ." She made a helpless sound and looked toward Kit Kat. "How do you say secoué?"
"She was all shook up. Rattled by her vision," Kit Kat explained, getting a nod from Jazeem.
"Yes, that." Jazeem waved a finger at the girl. "Mrs. Jewel -- my client -- Mrs. Jewel Forté Chambers said he was recently retired as a teacher. Then he interrupted her, saying she should get on with her business. Later, I wondered if he didn't want her speaking to me about him."
"So, you believe he's a murderer," Trudy said.
"A many times murderer." Jazeem's brow puckered and she looked at Kit Kat. "What is it called, girl?"
"Serial. A serial killer."
Jazeem gave an emphatic nod. "That's what he is." She turned over another card and her eyes widened. "Ah. Look at this. Levi Wolfe makes an appearance with this King of Pentacles. He is a big influence in your life and he brings with him riches. He is at ease with his station in life and his responsibilities and he wants to share it all with you. You must allow this if you want to build a happy nest."
Fait accompli, Trudy thought. Levi was wealthy -- many millions wealthy -- and that was something she was having difficulty embracing. She'd grown up being frugal and suddenly having her mortgage and student loans paid, the keys to a fancy car placed in her hand, and calling a luxurious penthouse "home" was doing a number on her.
"He's very generous," she said, then cleared her throat and steered the conversation away from her crazy, but good, private life. "But this man you're talking about was in a wheelchair. So, how dangerous could he be?"
"Perhaps this is a recent thing for him. Perhaps he retired from his work because he was injured and can't walk anymore."
Trudy mulled it over. "Yes, that's certainly possible."
Jazeem turned over another card. "The Queen of Swords!" She rested a fingertip on the image's crown. "You see the butterfly? That's as I told you. You have experienced depression and rejection, but now you accept the truth of who you are and your destiny. Now you can fly."
"That's good." Trudy examined the picture of the queen and felt some of the tension lift from her shoulders and neck.
Jazeem flipped over another card. "And the Two of Wands."
"That has something to do with business, doesn't it?" Trudy asked.
"It does. You are in the beginning of a new venture and it's a good one."
Quintara patted Trudy's arm. "See, dear? You're on the right track."
"She is. You've already had successes and this partnership with Levi will be a prosperous and emotionally satisfying one."
"I knew it!" Quintara beamed.
Jazeem revealed the face of another card and laughed. "The Page of Cups."
"The psychic card," Quintara said, also chuckling. "I'd be shocked if that one hadn't turned up."
"Oui. But it doesn't always show itself. I've read for many spiritualists and seers and it isn't unusual for that card not to appear. That it does for you represents the depth of your talent."
"Levi believes she hasn't even tapped into some of her abilities," Quintara said.
"Oh? Interesting." Jazeem arched a winged brow. "Let's see. One more card to guide us." She slipped it off the top of the deck and displayed it.
"The Moon," Quintara whispered, sending a shiver down Trudy's spine and tension back into her muscles.
Kit Kat moved closer, her gaze flicking from Jazeem to Trudy and back again.
"This is a most important revelation," Jazeem said, lowering her voice to a near whisper. "Deception is ahead. You must exercise extreme caution when dealing with others because they're wolves dressed as sheep." She pointed to the two wolves on the card that were howling at the moon. "The truth will come to you in visions and dreams. Trust your instincts even if they seem to lead you to darkness or danger. Denying what your instincts tell you to do will only bring you chaos and pain."
"Great," Trudy quipped as she rolled her shoulders to relieve some of the tightness. "Are we finished with the card reading now? I'd like to get back to your mysterious tale." And away from my future and impending doom. "Do you think he killed people in New Orleans?" Even as she asked, the answer seemed to zip into her brain like an arrow. An arrow possibly released by Jazeem since she was staring at Trudy with a jarring intensity. "Oh! You think he's the salvage yard murderer, don't you?"
"You know of this?" Her brown eyes reflected the flicker of flames from the tea lights scattered around on the furniture in the room.
"Levi and I read about the discovery of the buried bodies in the Slidell salvage yard. It was in the newspaper."
"After the recent flooding, one of the bodies floated up to the surface and was discovered. Others were also partly revealed. So many. They eventually found the remains of nineteen. All young, barely adults." Jazeem removed her glasses and set them aside.
"Levi and I were thinking about looking into the murders, but then we had so much hit us all at once. I moved from Tulsa to Atlanta. Some of Levi's construction projects were finishing up, and he had his big fundraiser event for his charity to stage, and then his personal assistant was married on Valentine's Day and I had to persuade Levi to attend her wedding."
"He didn't want to? He didn't want her to marry?" Kit Kat asked. She'd made herself comfortable on a black velvet love seat, her legs curled under her.
"Oh, no. Nothing like that." Trudy paused, drawing in a breath and trying to word it as delicately and kindly as possible. "He has a church phobia." She waved a hand in a dismissing gesture. "Long story. Anyway, I convinced him that he could attend the wedding and make his assistant and the man she married believe that he'd sat through the entire ceremony." She smiled, recalling how they'd snuck into the church just as the final vows were being recited, taking their places in a pew near the back. She'd never forget how pleased Darla had been to see Levi, since he'd told her he probably wouldn't be able to make it. So, no one was the wiser that Levi had sat stiffly, sweating, and breathing deeply in that church for only a couple of minutes before the happy couple were declared husband and wife.
"A church phobia?" Kit Kat repeated. "Like a vampire?"
Trudy chuckled. "Sort of, I suppose. He doesn't hate churches or religions or anything like that. He had some bad experiences when he was a child and they scarred him."
"Oh." Kit Kat's lower lip puffed out in a pout of sympathy. "That's so sad."
"Kit Kat thinks your man is . . . what did you call him? DDG?"
Kit Kat giggled and wrinkled her pert nose. "Yeah. I guess."
"What's that?" Quintara asked.
"Drop dead gorgeous," Trudy translated.
"Oh." Quintara gave a firm nod. "That he is, my dear. And he's well aware of it."
Trudy laughed in agreement. Levi wasn't stuck up, but he did use his looks to get things he wanted and he did so without apology.
"You'll send for Levi? You will expose this man for what he is?" Jazeem asked.
"It's not that simple, I'm afraid. Levi's wrapped up in some business things right now, which is why I'm here with Quintara. I decided to give him some space to get his work done. When I'm there, I . . . tend to distract him." She sent Quintara a quelling glance when the woman laughed naughtily. "I'll certainly discuss this with him, and once we're both free, we can look into it. Hopefully, the serial killer will be caught by then. I'm sure the New Orleans police and FBI are all over this. Did you tell the police about this guy?"
"What's to tell?" Jazeem flung her arms out. "That I sensed tortured spirits surrounding him?"
"But here in New Orleans, they must take the spiritual arts more seriously."
Jazeem looked away, obviously troubled, perhaps even embarrassed. "A few years ago, I had another protégé." She swung her gaze around to Kit Kat and smiled kindly at her. "Not like my Kit Kat, who is respectful. Ambrosia was headstrong. She took up with an older policeman who patrolled around here. She became pregnant and tried to blackmail him for money." Jazeem pressed her hands flat against the table and stood up, suddenly agitated. "It was atroce. The police were here every day. Every day for weeks on end! They lumped me in with her like we were the same. From then on, they looked at me as their foe. That policeman resigned early and his wife divorced him. His children were mad at him. Turned out that the baby wasn't his, after all. Quel bordel!"
"I'm used to the police not being helpful," Trudy said. "I just thought it might be different here. New Orleans is rife with voodoo queens, black magic, white magic, all kinds of magic."
"It is, but the police deal with facts they can bring to court," Quintara pointed out. "It's understandable." She flicked open the jeweled cover of a ring on her middle finger to reveal a watch face. "While I could bask in your company all evening, dearest Jazeem, we must be getting back to the psychic fair. I promised to meet some people for drinks."
"I understand, but I'm sorry to see you leave." Jazeem lifted a corner of the plum table cloth and removed a rectangle of paper. "I made a sketch of the man from my memory," she said, offering it to Trudy. "Take it."
Staring at the paper and feeling as if it were a key that would unlock a door she wasn't quite sure she wanted to open, Trudy finally chided herself and took the paper. She unfolded it and examined a charcoal drawing of a balding man, moon-faced, wearing glasses. "So, he's retired, but he doesn't look old. Maybe in his fifties?"
Quintara leaned closer to look at the drawing. "There is something about his eyes . . ." She shook her head and sat straight again. "I don't like him. The likeness of him gives off bad vibes."
That's when Trudy felt the first stirrings like the rustle of dried leaves rattling about in a corner of her mind. A shadow passed behind her eyes, dimming everything for a split-second, but it was long enough for her to recognize the telltale signs.
Someone evil was knocking at the door to her psyche. Eventually, she'd have to unlock it and let him in. It had begun and she was helpless to stop it.
At the crest of the hill, Callum Latimer sat astride his favorite horse and surveyed the land that he'd called his home since the day he was born. In the distance, he could see a ribbon of brown, which was the road that led to neighboring spreads and, eventually, to the nearest spot of civilization, Piney Ridge, Texas. But as far as the eye could see was Latimer land.
Before the war, he'd experienced great pride and pleasure from the gently rolling countryside around him. Now the sight filled him with emptiness. The land had become an anvil around his already sagging spirit, pulling him further down into a morass of loneliness and desolation.
Removing his hat, he dragged his fingers through his damp, black hair and let the breeze comb through it. He crossed his wrists on the saddle horn and felt his shoulders slump as the weight of responsibility pressed down on him. For a few minutes, he allowed the sweet, buoyant memories of riding the range with his two laughing, joshing brothers wind through his mind. Maxwell, tall and strong as an oak, and Harrison, with his ready smile and infectious laugh.
The land was supposed to pass from his father to Maxwell, the oldest, with Callum and Harrison working alongside Max. It had always been the plan and Callum had been fine with it -- more than fine. He hadn't seen himself as a leader. Not like Max, who had marched through life with shoulders thrown back and confidence radiating from him. Born to rule, Max had never followed anyone, except for Seth, the patriarch.
Callum had been happy to take orders from his brother and father. Let them worry about the price of cattle and hard winters. He had preferred to ruminate about how long Lilah Farley would hold out before she would let him up her skirt or if it were true that one of the dancing girls at the Two Jacks Saloon had stripped down to her altogether for his cousin Eller after he'd won big in a poker game.
The yesterdays faded like cannon fire smoke. Max and Harry were gone; killed fighting a war that had been lost, along with just about everything that made life bearable. Callum had discovered that he did have leadership qualities, moving up the ranks in the Cavalry until he was marshalling troops and murdering with the best of them.
The morose melancholy that had become his constant companion since he'd returned home from the war enveloped him in its cold, clammy grip. In all his twenty-seven years, he'd never known loneliness until the war and he'd foolishly thought he'd escape it once he was on Latimer land again. It didn't even feel like home anymore. It was more like a prison without bars or shackles. He didn't want to be there, but he couldn't leave.
The only things Seth Latimer had left to cling to after the War for Southern Independence were his land and his middle son. If Callum's father had died as his mother had during the war years, Callum would have taken off. He wasn't sure what he would have done, but he knew for damn sure he wouldn't have stayed here where he could see the ghost of his brothers' smiles and hear the echo of their laughter on the wind. He hated working the land without them. He did so out of respect for his father and the memory of his mother. Lacy Latimer had loved this place, even though it seemed to Callum that she'd never been entirely happy. There had always been a wistfulness about her -- a yearning for something else. Something more.
As for his father . . . well, Seth Latimer held on to the cattle ranch with both red-knuckled fists and determination etched on his craggy face. Callum had been back home about six months when Seth had fallen from his horse during a stampede. His hip and shoulder had been crushed. More than a year later, Seth still could barely walk, even with the assistance of canes. He'd never sit a horse again. That was for damned sure.
Cursing under his breath, Callum closed his eyes against the glare of the afternoon sunlight and the bleakness that was his life. If he could get a decent night's sleep, it would help. But he usually only slept a few hours before nightmares shook him awake and refused to allow his mind to settle enough so that he could fall asleep again. So, he walked the floors or sat on the porch and watched the stars with bloodshot eyes. Last night he'd taken to drink and today his head felt like it was stuffed with a bale of hay. His plan had been to get drunk enough to pass out, but the liquor had only stoked the embers of his discontent.
He rocked his wide-brimmed hat back onto his head. The distant sound of a horse and wagon reached him and he opened his eyes to see a brown puff of dust on the road below. Squinting, he examined the crudely constructed vehicle drawn by a milky white horse. It took him a few seconds before he realized who was driving the wagon. Why in the hell was she headed for his house?
Instinctively, he reined his Palomino around and clucked her into a gallop down the hill and across the pasture land, weaving around cattle and stands of trees. Butter stretched out her legs and neck as she raced home. The horse was lathered and so was Callum by the time the house came into view.
Seth Latimer sat in one of the over-sized rockers on the porch, one big hand stroking his favorite hound's head. His thick, gnarled walking canes lay at his feet. "Where's the fire?" he called out to Callum as he dismounted.
"Where's Mary?" Callum asked, peering through the open doorway into the house. It was early afternoon and too soon for Mary Killdeer to have already left his father alone to fend for himself. She usually came out onto the porch when she heard approaching riders. "Already gone."
"Why? Did something happen?" He tensed, wondering if Ki Echohawk, Mary's husband, or their sons, all of whom worked on the Latimer ranch, had run into some trouble.
"I'm tired of having her here," his pa snapped. "She was going to burn some more fatback and fry some of that dry bread of hers and I told her I'd rather eat cow dung."
"Pa . . ." Callum bit back the curses he wanted to aim at his stubborn father. "You can't do for yourself and Mary is--"
"In my way most of the time," Seth grumbled. "Mary Killdeer is a good woman. She's raised three fine sons that I'm proud to have working on this ranch, but for the life of me, I don't know how those boys eat that slop of hers. And how in the hell does Ki stomach it?"
"They're used to it, I reckon." Callum concentrated on loosening the saddle billets to make Butter more comfortable. He was tired of this same argument and he was sure Mary was sick of it, too. Callum was well aware that the only reason Mary hadn't already quit on him was because she knew he had no one else to depend on to help with his surly father.
"What you doing riding back here like your tail's on fire? I thought you were digging another well today."
"I am. I was. You'll never guess who's heading this way. Settle now, Butter," he murmured, patting her flank. He dropped the reins, letting the big mare graze.
"Who?" Seth tilted back his hat and sent a stream of tobacco juice past the porch railing. "Eller Hawkins? That lazy, good-for-nothing--"
"No," Callum said, slicing off yet another tirade about his cousin, who was supposed to be working on the ranch, but barely broke a sweat and rarely did a full day's work. "Otis Payne's daughter. Banner."
Seth coughed, almost choking on this tobacco chew, and his filmy green eyes watered. "She's got no business on this land," he wheezed out.
Callum walked up the steps to the porch and turned to stare toward the horizon. "Hope it's not bad news. Maybe something to do with her brother. There she is." He nodded at the dot in the distance.
"That Hollis is touched in the head."
"Don't say that in front of her." Callum tossed a scowl over his shoulder at his father, feeling the bite of that comment. Banner's surviving brother had been broken by the war -- not physically, but mentally. He couldn't escape the conflict and mayhem. Callum could empathize because he had a devil of a time stopping the scenes from playing over and over in his head, too.
"That whole Payne clan ain't worth shooting." Seth curled his upper lip for better effect. "Be a waste of good bullets. Best to cut their throats and let them--"
"Pa, ease up." Callum set his back teeth. "Let's hear what the girl has to say before you draw and quarter her." He was relieved when his father fell back in the chair with a disgusted grunt.
As long as he could remember, the Paynes were the family everyone in these parts shunned. His pa made noise about Otis Payne stealing cattle from him, but the bad blood between him and Otis went farther back than that -- years before Callum was born. The Paynes had a good piece of land and had usually turned out a healthy herd of cattle, but they were a slovenly lot. The children had always looked unkempt. That probably had to do with them not having a mother to look after them. Alva had died when Banner was just a babe.
The war had taken two of her brothers, leaving only Hollis. Otis had died six months before the war ended. Callum had heard that Banner was running the Payne ranch, but he didn't believe it. He figured Hollis was trying to be the boss and his cowhands were taking advantage of him. Stealing him blind, probably. That's what he'd heard from Eller and from folks in town.
Leaning a shoulder against the porch post, Callum watched the horse and wagon make its way toward the house. Behind him, the hound growled. "No, Rowdy," he commanded and the growl faded to whine.
The sun burned his eyes, making it difficult to discern any details of the Payne's girl's face. She reined the sway-backed horse in the shade of the house and Callum could finally see her bonnet and pretty dress. After she wrapped the reins around the brake, she turned toward him and a smile curved her pink lips as her gaze met his boldly, confidently.
Callum shifted his weight from one boot to the other as a bolt of awareness shot through him. Damn, she'd grown into a beauty, he thought, taking in her reddish brown hair and heart-shaped face. And those eyes -- dark gold. The eyes of a tiger.
"'Afternoon to you, Misters Latimer." Her voice had a husky quality, as pleasing as aged whiskey. "I bet you're surprised to see me."
"I don't like surprises," Seth said.
She swallowed and her smile faltered for a moment. Directing her full attention to Callum, she took in a breath that lifted her breasts and the white ruffles covering them. "Your herd looks profitable. Good, sound stock."
"That's what we're aiming for," Callum said, wondering what was going on under that blue bonnet. She was up to something -- but what? "How's the Payne herd?"
Her smile vanished and she shrugged. "Not what it should be. I'm missing some. It's been a bad year for calves, but a good year for coyotes, wolves, and rustlers."
"Your pappy stole cattle from me," Seth said, repeating an oft-spouted accusation.
Banner's gaze whipped to the older man's frowning visage and Callum could almost feel her fighting back scalding words.
"Sir, my father is dead and can no longer defend himself." She squared her shoulders. "And I'm not here to fight old battles. I have new ones to address. I'll come right the point as I know you have work to attend to -- as have I. Northerners are sniffing around our place and several have offered to buy me out."
"Damn Yankees," Seth groused and Rowdy growled as if in agreement.
Banner gave a sniff of contempt. "Of course, they want to pay half of what it's worth." She looked off into the distance and it seemed that a shadow passed over her face. "Looks like I'm going to have to sell. I don't want the Yankees to prosper from what my family bled and died for, so I'm here to offer it to you." Her gaze swept to Callum again. "I'll sell it to you. All I ask is that you let Hollis stay on."
Her matter-of-fact tone and the desperation underlying it ambushed him. He never expected her to offer his family anything of value. Callum looked at his father, who was slack-jawed. He cleared his throat. "You'd stay on with Hollis?"
"With . . ?" She shook her head. "No. I'd go into town and find work. The ranch is more than I can handle."
"Guess your brother is lazy as the day is long and no help to you," Seth said in his growly way of talking.
Aggravation pinched her features. "My brother is the only ranch hand I can depend on. For your information, he is by no means lazy. If I had five more men just like him, I wouldn't be here."
Callum stared hard at her. Maybe she was running the ranch instead of Hollis. "How many hands you got working your herd?"
She didn't answer him right away, and from her pained expression, he knew he'd finally found the quicksand she'd been trying to avoid.
"I'm down to two, not counting Hollis," she said in a near whisper.
"Two!" Seth sputtered.
"What happened to the others?" Callum asked. Granted, the Payne spread was half the size of the Latimer Ranch, but three men wouldn't be able to work a decent herd of longhorns.
"We had to let them go. We didn't have money to pay them." She jutted out her chin in a defiant gesture.
"What did you do with the money you got from last year's herd?" Would she confess the truth? Or was she deaf and blind to what was going on under her nose?
She sat straighter and didn't bat an eye when she answered, "We were robbed."
"You saying that you didn't get a fair price at market?" Seth asked.
Before she could reply, Callum stepped down off the porch and rested a hand on the swayback nag. He knew she wasn't talking about market prices. "Who made off with your money?"
"I don't know." Her lips trembled slightly before she gathered them into a tight bud. "On the way back from market, my men were jumped. They said the robbers wore handkerchiefs across the lower part of their faces."
Callum glanced back at his father and exchanged a knowing nod. Yep. That was a lie told by the very men who took off with her money. And she probably knew it, too. She just couldn't admit it.
"Everybody's got their troubles," Seth said, giving her no quarter. "You ain't special."
"I never said I was!" Her eyes blazed, but then just as quickly, she looked away and gathered in a breath. "I'm not asking for favors. I'm here to sell you my land. I was thinking that a fair price would be--"
"We don't have money to buy land," Callum cut her off. "What money we have will go toward the necessities like feed and wages." He watched the hope die in her eyes and gave a shrug. "Our Confederate money is as worthless as yours. We're building our bankroll slowly, like every other Rebel rancher in these parts."
"That's right, girl. Get on back home. We got nothing for you here."
"There's no way we can strike a deal?" she asked, keeping her attention on Callum and ignoring his father. "You can pay me a little at a time. The Payne ranch land is coveted, what with Mossy Springs running through it. And while the house isn't much, the barn and stables are water-tight."
"No means no, girl," Seth said before sending an arc of tobacco juice over the porch railing in her direction. "Nothing you got is of any interest to us."
Callum ran a hand down the horse's flank, wishing his father would stow his bitterness for a few minutes so he could think. Mossy Springs would be a prize. Water was scarce on the Latimer ranch. Wells had to be dug and water hauled to troughs. Their cow ponds went shallow by high summer and that's why he'd been digging a well all day. A natural water source would be a real blessing.
Banner gathered the reins in her small hands. That's when Callum saw the scratches on them and the dark bruise on the inside of her wrist. Glancing up, he noticed the sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose and tanned cheeks. This girl had been working the ranch -- and working hard. Had to be near impossible for her. If she were like every other female in these parts, she'd been taught how to clean and cook--
Suddenly, a memory floated to him of a church picnic where pies had been auctioned off to raise money for new hymnals. Eller had bought Banner Payne's strawberry pie and had shared it with him. It had been the sweetest, tastiest . . . his mouth watered just thinking about it.
"I'll come by tomorrow morning to take a look at your place," Callum said.
Startled, her golden brown eyes widened. "I-I . . . tomorrow? Very well."
"I can't buy it," he said, not wanting to give her false hope. "But maybe I can figure out something to help you."
Her lips softened and the hint of a smile teased one corner of her mouth, making a dimple appear in her cheek. "Thank you."
"You're going over there for what?" Seth asked, clearly aggravated.
Callum stepped back and touched his fingers to his hat brim. "I'll be around shortly after sunup, if that's okay."
"Yes. Fine. Good day." She flicked the reins and set the wagon in motion.
"What in the hell are you thinking?" Seth groused, temper rising like red flags in his cheeks.
Callum watched the wagon bump along the land, secretly amused by Banner Payne's quick getaway. High-tailin' it before he could change his mind.
"You hear me?" Seth demanded. "I asked you a question, son."
Callum swung around to him. "I'm thinking that Mossy Springs would serve us better than it would some Yankee carpetbaggers looking to steal good cattle land. Our biggest drawback is our lack of a good water source." He jabbed a finger at the departing wagon. "She could solve that problem for us."
"And what are you going to give her in return? We don't have money to spend on land and you damn well know it!"
"Won't hurt to take a look at her place. I haven't set foot on Payne land since I was a boy."
"Big waste of your time, if you ask me."
"My time to waste," Callum murmured as he gathered Butter's reins and led her toward the barn. Yep, that pie had been larruping. That girl could cook. And he'd liked the way she hadn't backed down when his father had growled at her. She had spunk. A risky plan began to form in his mind. A crazy plan. But, hell, times were crazy and she just might go for it. If she did, a couple of his biggest headaches would be eased. Considerably eased.
"You don't realize how special you are, do you?"
Trudy smiled. "Special to you."
"Yes, and special as a psychic." Levi straightened, stood, and threw his leg over the seat, sitting backwards in it to face her. Wrapping an arm around her waist, he hauled her up against the back of the chair. "What I do isn't anything special. Talking to the deceased is a psychic staple. But what you can do . . . connecting with the thoughts of a living being . . . that is rare. In fact, I don't know of anyone else who can actually do it. I know a couple of people who claim to be able to, but you're the only psychic I've ever met who is the genuine article."
She listened, but found holes in his argument. "What you do is special. You told me yourself that your accuracy sets you apart from other mediums."
"Yes, that's right. I'm good. Damn good." He winked at her. "But you're a diamond among crystals. You sparkle so brightly, you blind the rest of us."
Her heart melted into a puddle as he gazed at her with undisguised admiration. "I'm not . . . am I? You really don't know anyone who can do what I do?"
He shook his head slowly, deliberately, his blue eyes shining. "Nary a one." He regarded her for a few moments before his lips twitched into a grin. "Does that freak you out?"
"A little." She swallowed the lump in her throat so that her voice would emerge stronger. "Quintara has told me that I'm one of a kind, but I figured she was exaggerating -- as she's known to do."
"This time your flamboyant mentor wasn't embellishing the truth." He rested his hands on her hips, his long fingers spreading across her jeaned backside. "At the risk of freaking you out more, I think you've only begun to reveal the extent of what you can do. You're holding back because you're afraid. I understand. I've been there." His fingers flexed on her hips. "Take your time. Let it come to you gradually and don't be scared. You're strong and brave. You'll be able to handle it."
"Handle what?" She shook her head as a ball of nerves grew in her stomach.
"Your gift. Your incredible gift."
"You said you'd help me."
"And I will. I'm here for you."
She framed his achingly handsome face in her hands and her heart doubled in size. "How'd I get so lucky?"
"I'm the lucky one." He turned his face so that he could kiss her palm, but not before she saw darkness pass through his eyes like a specter. "And you'll agree with me whole-heartedly once we're in Missouri."
"What's the box?" She watched with growing concern as his face tightened, his jaw muscles flexed, and his eyes clouded with turbulent memories.
"A root cellar. A small place. Standing up, you could extend your arms out from your sides and touch the walls. It was cool and damned cold in there at night."
"Where was this?"
"The Missouri Ozarks. Out in the wilds. It was a school set up on an abandoned farm property. They'd turned the farmhouse into a dormitory and the barn into a school." He made a scoffing sound. "Not that they provided much of an education. Mostly, we read and memorized the Bible. There were classes in literature, English, math, a little science and geography here and there, but that was about it."
"How old were you when you went there?"
"Nine. When I arrived I had just turned nine. I left when I was almost eleven to go to a school in Wyoming."
"Nine." She took up her own defensive stance, hunching her shoulders and rubbing her hands up and down her arms. Thinking of him as a nine-year-old being carted off to a place where he was schooled in a barn made her skin break out in gooseflesh. "I don't know how your parents could send their little boy away like that."
He gave an indolent shrug that she didn't buy for one second. "They were trying to chase the devil out of me."
"Idiotic," she murmured.
"They put us in the box when we were bad." One corner of his mouth lifted fractionally.
"And I was bad. Bad to the bone."
"What did you do that was so terrible?" She couldn't imagine any sane reason to put a child down into a hole.
"I refused to say that my father was right and that I was a liar."
"About your psychic abilities," she clarified. "So, it was a religious thing with your parents? They truly felt that your abilities were a sign of evil . . . of the devil?"
"That's what my father thought . . . or that's his story and he's sticking to it." A quick, half smile flitted across his lips. "He's an intelligent man, so I've always believed that he's mainly intimidated by my abilities. He's a classic narcissist. Therefore, it must be impossible for him to think that I can do things that he can't. As for my mother?" He gazed up at the stars and violet shadows caressed his achingly handsome face. "I don't know. She probably wished I'd just tell my father what he wanted to hear and do what he said to do. That's what she did. She went along with whatever shit he shoveled out."
Trudy wanted to touch him. No, she wanted to hold him, but she stood still as her heart constricted with pain for him. She wanted to cry, but she knew he didn't want her tears, so she swallowed the burning ball of emotion in her throat. He was talking and she was grateful, but what he was saying was difficult to hear. His upbringing had been a long nightmare from which he couldn't awaken -- and he was just scratching the surface. That's what bothered her more than anything. His traumas ran deep. Soul deep.
"And the box?" she asked in a whisper. "How long did they keep children in there?"
"An hour at first. Then hours. I graduated to all day and then to all day and all night. The nights were the worst. It was cold in there and black as pitch. That's when the rats would come out."
Trudy couldn't stop the shudder that shook her from head to toes. She cleared her throat. "R-rats?"
"Big motherfuckers. Of course, I was only a kid, so they seemed like they were the size of Volkswagens. I couldn't see them, but I could hear them scurrying around and I could feel them. They'd run across my feet. One of them jumped on my shoulder and bit my neck. I screamed and screamed. Screamed my fucking lungs out that night." He glanced at her from the corner of his eyes. "That's why my voice is husky. I damaged my vocal chords. I couldn't talk above a whisper for a couple of months after that and my voice never fully recovered."
"I love your voice," she said, the declaration lifting from her heart onto her lips.
"Really?" He shook his head and sent her a baffled grin. "I think I sound like a bad actor doing a commercial for sore throat lozenges."
She shook her head and decided to allow her heart to keep talking. "Your voice matches the rest of you. Sexy as hell."
His arms slipped down his body and his shoulders lost some of their stiffness. He held out a hand to her. "Come here, you."
He didn't have to ask twice. She stepped into his embrace, her arms circling his waist, her cheek stroking his bare chest.
She opened her mouth to speak, but then her face froze and her eyes grew large. A glassy haze seemed to drift over them, changing their deep green to a light olive color. She sat straighter and her head turned slowly away from him until she was staring at the street.
Nothing. She didn't acknowledge him in the least.
Levi closed his eyes. Shit. The crazy motherfucker had her again.
Feeling helpless, Levi glanced around at the other people on the patio, but no one seemed to notice the glassy-eyed girl sitting at his table, staring sightlessly at the street. Tentatively, he scooted his chair closer to hers and took her hands in his. This wasn't the greatest place for her to be in a trance!
A barely discernible quiver danced through her limbs and he wanted desperately to enfold her in his arms and shelter her. But that wouldn't help her through this. He closed his eyes for a moment, trying to tune into her as he searched through his years of training, schooling, and his bag of tricks to find the right tools.
"Trudy?" he whispered, opening his eyes and leaning closer to her. He ran his thumbs over the back of her hands, appreciating her soft skin, wishing fervently that he could see what she was seeing. "Where are you, Trudy? Talk to me."
"Walking to Mallory Square," she said, her voice flat, like a robot's.
Looking in that direction, Levi frowned. Naturally, he's going to Mallory Square a couple of hours before sunset where it will be jam-packed with people. The area was a big, open space near the ocean, full of locals and tourists where a stalker could get lost and stare at women without drawing attention to himself. "Is he alone?"
"Alone, but not for long," she whispered back to him. "Got my eye on someone." She scanned the area in front of her, craning her neck, furrowing her brow. "Where the hell is she? Here, kitty, kitty, kitty. Come rub up against me so I can run a knife between your tits and watch you bleed out."
Levi glanced around. A man and two women sat at the table nearest them and they were looking at them. He saw one of the women lean toward the man and say, "That's Levi Wolfe!"
Oh, Christ on a crutch. Catching sight of the waiter, Levi let go of Trudy's hands and motioned for him to come over.
"How much is the bill?" Levi stood and pulled his wallet from his back pocket.
"I'll go print it--."
"No, just tell me how much. We have to go."
"Is there a problem?"
Impatience blew threw him like a hot wind. He looked at the young, pimply-faced waiter from beneath his lowered brows and shoved him with his mind. The waiter drew in a deep breath and blinked his hazel eyes. Got your attention now? Just do as I say! "Will this cover it and your tip?" He threw two twenties and a ten on the table.
"Yes, sir. Yes!"
"Fine." Levi shoved his wallet into his back pocket and then shrugged into his jacket.
Leaning down, he took Trudy's hands into his again. "Stand up, Trudy. Stand!"
She moaned and shook her head.
He pulled her up to her feet. She swayed and he wrapped an arm around her waist and made her walk with him.
"We're going to Mallory Square," he said, close to her ear. "Walk, Trudy."
She moved more like a zombie than a lithe, young woman. He tightened his arm around her waist and they made their way jerkily along the sidewalk. He realized that she was stumbling more than walking, so he directed her toward a covered bench next to a bus stop. Anyone looking at them probably thought she was completely wasted. He let her slide down his body to sit on the bench and he joined her, peering into her flushed face and expressionless, olive green eyes. God, she was really gone!
"What's he doing now, Trudy? Where is he?"
"Mallory Square," she breathed.
He glanced in that direction and guessed they were about two blocks from the square -- the acclaimed southernmost tip of the continental United States. Steel drum music drifted to him and then a violin sang out as musicians warmed up. He could imagine the scores of artists, clowns, jugglers, stilt-walkers, and even Gypsy palm readers and half-assed psychics joining crowds of natives and vacationers as they did every evening to watch the unobstructed view of the sun setting in the ocean.
Studying Trudy's blank expression, he wondered what was going on behind her sightless green eyes. Her experience might be similar to his, but it also had to be vastly different. He mingled with benign spirits. She had been taken over by a flesh-and-blood devil who was only a few blocks from where they sat. An icy chill clamped onto his heart and, not for the first time, he feared for Trudy's safety. They were close to the killer. If she could commune with him, could the killer sense her, as well? If the killer saw her, would he make the connection and realize she was a threat?
"What do you see?" he asked her, wishing she'd talk. He took her by the shoulders and turned her around so that she faced him on the bench.
"Her. I see her," Trudy said, her lips barely moving.
"What does she look like? What's her name?"
An unpleasant smile claimed her lush mouth. "See you later, cuntie. We'll have fun later. Yeah, laugh it up, bitch. I'll fuck your mouth and make you choke on my big, fat cock before I slice off your nipples. Yeah, I can see your nips sticking out under that thin shirt. You think you're such a pretty pussy, don't you? Fucking bitch. Later. After some girl talk."
Levi shook his head, disturbed by the ugliness falling from her lovely mouth. He winced, hoping she'd come back soon. Girl talk? What the hell? Was the woman already talking to Zelda while the murderer looked on?
Trudy blinked and blinked again. A shudder convulsed through her and then life blazed in her green eyes again. A whimper escaped from her.
"Thank God." Levi pulled her into his arms and rocked her back and forth. "Jesus, that scares the shit out me, so I can only imagine what it does to you."
"What?" Her voice was muffled against his chest.
Reluctantly, he held her a little away from him and met her questioning gaze. "What did you see? What does she look like? Do you know her name?"
Trudy drew in shaking breath and closed her eyes. "She's about my age, taller than me, white-blond hair and it's piled up on her head in a high ponytail. She's stacked. Big boobs -- probably double D's -- small waist, small hips, tanned legs. She's wearing cutoffs and a white t-shirt and she's barefoot."
"Is she with anyone? Is Zelda with her?"
She puckered her brow, deep in thought. "I think she's with a group of people, but I'm not sure."
"Let's go find her." He stood up, pulling her to her feet. "We're only two blocks away."
Bending his knees, he ducked down to capture her gaze. Her cat eyes were swimming with unshed tears. "Are you okay?"
She nodded and wiped the moisture from her lashes. "I'm fine now. My head was foggy there for a minute, but I feel okay, I think."
Slipping an arm around her shoulders, he set off with her toward the crowds at Key West's most famous square where a woman had been marked for death by a madman.
Crossing to the small hallway, he opened the door to the room he'd slept in.
Jennie stood beside the cot. She looked up, startled. She held the bed pillow in her arms and she dropped it as if it were a hot branding iron. He knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she had not just been holding it -- she'd been hugging it, burying her face in it. His blood heated and his heart bumped up against his ribcage, then bucked like a wild bronco.
"I left my hat in here." He looked at the washstand where he'd hung his hat on a peg.
"Oh. I was just . . . just . . ." She moved around the cot and toward the doorway that he blocked.
Zach was mesmerized by the pulse beating in her throat, moving the creamy skin ever so slightly. The scent of soap and violets lifted off her to tantalize him further. She wore a white dress, a lacy thing that hugged her curves, emphasizing the narrowness of her waist and the seductive swell of her breasts, her hips. Her raven hair was loose, falling over her shoulders and down her back. He flexed his hands, wanting to drive his fingers through her hair and tip back her head so that he could capture that pulsing skin on her neck with his lips.
She cleared her throat. "I was just . . . um . . . stripping the sheet off the cot and --."
"The hell you were," he said, his voice coming out raspy.
"What?" Her dove gray eyes darkened slightly when she looked him squarely in the face. He knew she saw there what raged within him. Longing. Lust.
He didn't want to talk anymore. There was nothing more to say. Hooking an arm around her waist, he pulled her up flush against him. She came willingly, giving no resistance. Her lips parted and he claimed them with a feverish kiss. She moaned and the sound reverberated in his head. He broke the kiss to find that telltale pulse in her neck. Tasting it with the tip of his tongue, he felt her tremble and she released a mewling sound that made him ache with an exquisite pain.
She raked her fingers through his hair and splayed her hands at the back of his head and neck, holding him tightly to her as he pressed kisses along the column of her neck and then ravaged her mouth again. He stroked her tongue with his and she arched against him. He knew she was aware of his arousal because she sucked in a little breath as if she were surprised. But why she would be didn't make sense. Couldn't she tell by the way he was caressing her and kissing her that he wanted her, wanted to be inside her, wanted to plunge deeper and deeper?
He mirrored that motion with his tongue and she clutched at his hair. He felt her sag against him as her knees gave way. He tightened one arm around her waist and reached down with his free hand to capture her knee and lift her leg up along his hip, tucking her closer against him as he kissed her mouth again and again, making her breathless.
"Zach, Zach . . ." she whispered his name like a prayer.
"I want you," he whispered back. "I want you now." He ran his hand up under her skirt and petticoat and felt the soft skin of her inner thigh. He thought he might die then and there.
"You're awake!" She leaned closer to peer into his face. "And about time, too."
"I hurt . . . bad."
"Good for you. That means you're alive. You've been close to death the past few days."
Her voice was rich, deep, a little breathy. It fell pleasantly on his ears. "Days?" he repeated.
"I set your leg and pulled the arrow from your chest. Now that you're awake, I can tend to your wounds better. My medicine has chased away sickness. I can see color in your face. That means death has left you in my hands for now." She pressed the back of her narrow wrist against his forehead. "Cooler. Much cooler."
"Yes." She dipped a tin cup into the bucket near her and gave it to him. His hand shook, but he directed the cup to his lips and spilled not a drop. "I'll shave you and bathe you tonight."
He rolled his gray-green eyes her way. "Th-that's okay."
"Your wound must be cleaned. Might as well clean all of you. I've done it once already."
It was then that he realized he was buck naked under the wool blanket and buffalo robe.
Modesty spilled heat over his neck and face.
"Uh . . . where's your man? Out trapping?"
She pushed her hair away from her face, then took the tin cup from him. Her eyes were dark brown and made him think of warm cocoa. The firelight played over her face and he saw that she was beautiful. Her skin was unlined and lightly freckled. Her eyes were large and wide-set. A shallow dimple adorned her chin.
"I have no man," she said, tipping up that chin in a show of pride. "I have tended to you by myself."
No man. Well, maybe that's for the best, he thought, eyeing her beauty. An air of nobility clung to her. A wild spirit inhabited her earthy eyes. Suddenly, he was glad no man had claimed her.
"What are you called?" she asked, rocking her head to one side, her hair spilling like a red curtain over her shoulder.
He moistened his dry lips with his tongue. "Tucker."
"What Tucker? What is your Christian name?"
"That's it. Tucker Jones. What's yours?"
"You can call me Copper. My whole name was Copper Headed Woman."
"That's an Indian name."
She faced the fire, averting her gaze from him. "Yes. I'm Absaroka Crow."
He stared at her for a full minute, sensing the pain beneath the stillness of her expression.
"But you're white. Did they kidnap you from your family?"
She blinked and turned her head slowly to look at him again. "They are -- were my people . . ." Her voice faded, then returned. "I have a hazy memory of my first family, but in my head and heart, I have always been Crow. It's all I've known. But now I live on my own and belong to no people."
"On your own, huh? Since when?""Last winter." She looked into the dancing flames again. "You must be hungry. I'll get you a bowl of soup." Pushing to her feet, she let the wool shawl drop from her shoulders. She bent toward the pot near the fire. Steam curled from it. "It's good soup, seasoned with turnips and buffalo fat." When she reached for one of the wooden bowls stacked on a high shelf, her buckskin dress clung to her body. Tucker swallowed a groan. Not only was she beautiful and unmarried, she was great with child.
"Coast Guard, this is Key Poco. Come back."
The radio crackled. "Happy Halloween, Key Poco. This is the Coast Guard. Over."
"Happy Halloween to you, too. I have a lost-at-sea to report. Over."
"Vessel or sailor?"
His blue eyes tracked to her. "A person. Female."
"You found her?"
"Confirmed. She washed up on a raft a while ago. She came from Key West. Could you swing by for her? I'd hate to cast her off in that raft again. Over."
"Be glad to when we can. Hurricane Hildegarde is revved up and she's blowing our way. If she stays on this track, she will slide past you tomorrow afternoon. Not on you, but close enough to blow out windows and flood low areas. Batten down the hatches, mate. Over."
He grimaced. "Affirmative on that."
"We're crazy busy tonight and tomorrow clearing the shipping lanes and fishing boats, so we can't say for sure when we can swing by. We'll try to come for her day after tomorrow. Keep her there until you hear from us. Come back."
"I copy." He ran a hand through his hair and massaged the back of his neck. "Thanks, Coast Guard. Over and out."
Hildy shrugged when he glanced her way. "You're stuck with me. You did notice that the hurricane and I share the same name."
"I did." He reeled around in the chair to glare at her with those penetrated, somehow sad, blue eyes. "I guess Eberhardt hasn't reported you missing. Nice guy. Real noble." He stood and stretched and she was reminded of a sleek animal.
"So, have you met Ebbie?"
"Casually. We used to run in the same pack."
She sent her hands up and down her arms, trying to wipe clean the goose bumps. A blue-eyed wolf on a Halloween night. How's that for high drama on the high seas?
"Do you live on Key West now?"
"No, I still live in Manhattan."
A wry smirk pushed at one corner of his mouth. "The big, rotting apple."
"Hey, watch it! I love New York!"
"I used to love it. I used to love a lot of things." He shrugged. "Actually, I was thinking of moving back there, but I decided I like Florida, so I'm looking for real estate in Naples."
"What about this place?"
"I'm leasing it and the lease is up next month, so I'm moving on." He stretched his arms above his head and his fingertips nearly touched the ceiling. "I'll let you sleep in the back room."
"Does it have a bed in it?"
"It does." His eyes twinkled briefly.
"So, what have you been doing here?" she asked, glancing around the study.
"I work. I suppose that seems odd to you."
She hitched up her chin. "I happen to work, too. I'm not just a trust fund baby."
"I see. And what is a fair princess required to do in order to make a buck in these modern times?"
She looked away, not liking his chiding and feeling not unlike a bug under a microscope.
"I'm assistant to the publisher of Stylistic magazine."
One side of his mouth twitched. "And who are you related to at that magazine?"
She couldn't keep the grin at bay. He's sharp, she thought. He had her cold. "My Uncle Walter owns the rag."
He nodded, then crooked a finger at her. "Your room is this way. You've dripped on my floor long enough."
She followed dutifully, longing for a hot shower and cool bed sheets. The bedroom had the essential furniture -- a bed, dresser, trunk, and nightstand. He certainly wasn't trying to impress anyone.
"The bathroom is right here." He tapped a door across the hall. "There are fresh towels and washcloths in the cabinet above the sink."
"Thanks." Mischief stirred in her. "Have someone bring in my luggage, please. I'll have coffee, freshly squeezed orange juice, and warm croissants in the morning, but not before ten. That will be all for now, Mr. Barton."
He arched a brow and almost smiled. "Looks like your eye will be black tomorrow."
She touched the corner of it gingerly. "I'm fine." When he turned to leave, she reached out and grabbed his sleeve. "Wait. Are you still writing?" Last time she had heard, he was a freelance writer and editor.
"Yes, princess, I am. In fact, I just finished an article about your Uncle Walter's rag. Good night." He shut the door on her surprised expression.