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Cee Cee woke to the inviting scent of thick chicory coffee. It was an effort to drag her eyes open, even more so to recognize where she was. Unrelieved white walls lifting to a twelve foot ceiling. Cotton sheets as smooth as satin. No roar of road traffic. The sweet tang of mock orange instead of Iberia hot sauce from the crab shack down the street.
And a sound like no other: the low seismic rumble of Max Savoie’s voice.
He leaned with his back against the jamb of the French doors that led out onto the balcony. He was dressed in the easy drape of a black suit, his white shirt open at the neck. Short black hair was still damp from the shower and the hard angles of his face smoothly shaven. With pure morning light reflecting off the green of his eyes, he looked like hot sex in shiny shoes.
She was suddenly wide awake.
“Why are you already dressed?”
“I’ve got an early meeting in the city and I didn’t want to disturb you.”
Disturb wasn’t exactly the verb that came to mind. “When did you get in?”
“Late. I didn’t know you were going to be here. I’m sorry.”
He didn’t sound it. He sound . . . wary.
Her confidence jerked to a shuddering halt. “I should have called first. I shouldn’t have
assumed I’d be welcome.”
“You can come here any time. I’ve told you that.”
So why didn’t she feel like it was true this morning? She sat up, keeping the sheet trapped under her armpits. She needn’t have bothered. There was no spark of anything in his steady stare.
“I wanted to see you,” she began carefully. “I wanted to talk to you about the words we had in your office.”
“What words were those?”
He was angry. Or was it something else? Sometimes he was so hard to read. Hell, most of the time she felt like she was stuck with only the foreign language directions that accompanied their relationship. And there weren’t even any pictures to help.
“I know you didn’t kill that girl. I only asked about you being gone because I wanted to be able to eliminate you completely as a possible suspect. I was just doing my job. It wasn’t personal. I’m sorry if it felt that way.”
He didn’t blink. Finally, some of the stiffness eased from his expression. “I apologize for feeling offended.”
She smiled. Crisis averted. “Besides, Dovion will be able to confirm that the bite marks on the girl weren’t the same as Gautreaux and Surette.”
Max didn’t move. “Was this before or after you decided to have faith in me? Nothing like belief when it’s backed by fact first.”
“Why are you so angry with me?”
That surprised him. “I’m not angry. I never get angry.”
She arched a brow. “Really? Then that must have been someone else threatening to eat that redheaded guy’s face if he didn’t take his hands off me.”
“That wasn’t anger.”
“What was it? Small talk?”
The stern set of his lips twitched.
“If you’re not angry, come over here.”
Caution crept up into his gaze.
“Come here. Coward.”
That brought a flash into his stare. He came away from the doorframe and strode to the bed with his strangely graceful yet powerful stride. He stopped just out of reach.
He took another step and she stood, catching the lapels of his jacket as the sheet dropped away. She touched her mouth to his, then leaned back. His eyes were closed. He never closed his eyes when they kissed.
“Max, what’s wrong? What is it? Please tell me.”
He rested his head on her shoulder, the breath sighing from him wearily. “It’s nothing. I’m
sorry I’m being . . . how do you put it? Pissy? I’m just tired and overwhelmed. I’m not used to having to be everything to everyone with all of them pulling in a different direction.”
“What can I do?”
A seemingly simple request. She touched the back of his head, letting her fingers trickle through his silky hair. She knew enough from listening to Babineau that in a relationship, each partner was supposed to be the other’s port in emotional storms. She was at a loss there. Hers wasn’t a quiet, omforting nature. She preferred to wade right in swinging.
Where had Max learned to be so damned perfect at it? All she had to do was hint an approaching meltdown and he had her wrapped up tight in a cocoon of care. She wanted to do that for him, to be there for him, but she had no nurturing role models to turn to for advice. Babineau’s dewy-eyed wife? No thank you. She’d rather muddle through on her own.
“I’m sorry,” she told him with a cut-to-the-chase candor that wasn’t particularly sensitive, but at least it was honest. “I get so caught up in my job that I sometimes forget that you’re in
His hands came up, one sliding between her shoulders blades, one following the curve of her spine down to the small of her back, both making restless, soothing circles. Her body went liquid. Oh, yes. He was damned near perfect.
“If I’m pushing and pulling it’s because this case is so personal,” she confessed softly. “Everything about it takes me back, makes me feel helpless and scared and angry. I want to nail the man who did this to that poor girl, who made her face all the awful things I had to. Until I have him, I can’t concentrate on anything else, I don’t have time for anything
else, I’m no good for anything else. I know that’s not fair, but I’ll make it up
to you. I will.”
Her tone had grown hard and fierce, vibrating with the passion that made her job more than just that. She hadn’t meant it to take over. She’d wanted to concentrate on him, and here she was shoving him out of the away.
It was a vendetta she had against those who harmed the innocent. She and Mary Kate Malone had gone after their demons in different ways. She became a cop. Mary Kate became Sister Catherine. And both used Max as a tool toward that personal and spiritual vengeance. And what a fierce avenging tool he was.
Max stepped away from the temptation of Charlotte Caissie. He held
her gaze with a flat stare, giving her what she wanted.
“I went to the club last night, after I left your apartment. I went to see to my promise.” He told her the gist of his conversation with Jacques LaRoche. Perhaps unintentionally
confining the information to the dock clan and not including the spooky unknowns
of the North. Nor did he share the disturbing contacts he’d had from that unidentified source. He wasn’t sure he wanted her exploring, for the protection of all involved.
Her expression grew thoughtful, her attention focused beyond the room where she stood naked at the side of his bed. She might as well have been wearing a uniform.
“Do you believe him? Did you get the sense he was trying to cover up for someone?”
Max shrugged. “Yes and no. I don’t think he was lying to me, but I’ve no reason to think he’d be entirely truthful if it wasn’t to his advantage.” He quickly skimmed her sleek nudity. “You
should get dressed, Detective, since you’re already on the clock.”
She eyed her rumpled clothes. “Can I borrow a shirt?” Then she added a bit shyly,
“Maybe I should start leaving a few things here.”
“If you like,” he murmured with an astonishing lack of enthusiasm after he’d campaigned so ardently for her to claim a small portion of his closet. “I have to go.”
“I can give you a lift in if you can wait for me to grab a shower.”
“Thanks, but I’m in a hurry.”
Piqued by his gruff rejection, she jerked a tee shirt out of his dresser, grumbling, “I don’t remember Jimmy Legere running into the city every day.”
“Jimmy had people there that he trusted. I don’t. I have to be on top of things or they’ll get pulled out from under me. I’ll let you know if I find out anything else that might interest you.”
She slipped the shirt over her head. For a moment, he couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“Good-bye, Detective.” His words were soft and tight-throated.
As he started to turn away, she said, “Max? When will I see you?”
“I don’t know. It seems like we’re both too busy to find time for each
other.” Something anxious swelled within her heart and filled her uplifted
stare. “Find time.”
He smiled faintly. “I’ll try if you will.”
She waited until she heard the front door close before going out onto the balcony, leaning
there on the railing. He emerged from the shadow of the house to stride across the lawn toward the carriage house where Legere’s marvelous collection of cars was kept. Cars Max didn’t know how to drive. One of which he’d given to her as a gift.
She loved watching him. He moved differently when he thought he was alone. Quicker. So quick, sometimes he seemed to blur. The irony of him going off to work at LE International troubled her. Jimmy Legere’s teasing, relentlessly lovelorn leg breaker now a somber executive in his designer suit and Italian leather. Something gave way in her chest, like a lynchpin holding the gate to her emotions closed.
Gripping the rail, she leaned out and said softly, “I love you, Savoie.”
For a moment he just stood there in the damp grass, the slant of early sunrise gleaming off his dark head. Then he turned, gaze lifting. Nothing changed in his expression as he touched his fingertips to his mouth and waved that kiss her way. His image shimmered, forcing her to blink rapidly, then to act with haste.
“Wait,” she called.
She darted back into his room, returning in seconds.
“You forgot your shoes.”
He caught the red high-tops she tossed down, holding them to his chest in bemusement.
“You’re mine, Max. I’m not going to let them have all of you.”
He levered out of the shiny shoes that had become a frightening symbol of the changes demanded from him. Then he slipped into the Converses—the foot wear of her savior of twelve years ago, of the man who courted her with unflagging determination and simmering innuendo, of the lover who’d stolen her affections and filled her dreams with a sense of safety. He laced them quickly then straightened.
Her desire for him stirred and began to simmer. “You are so hot.”
He smiled. “Get some clothes on before I’m tempted to come back inside.”
Boldly, she gripped the hem of the T-shirt and pulled it up to her chin.
He blinked, then his sober expression split with a wide wicked grin.
“See you soon,” she called down to him, restoring her modesty and his ability to breathe.
“Yes, you will.”
He strode away, leaving the shiny shoes in the grass without a second thought. She
could hear his low chuckle, and was able to let him go.
Max would have never guessed her destination. If he’d suspected, he
would have put a stop to it.
It was late afternoon, happy hour time in most Big Easy establishments. Cheveux du Chien was no exception; alternative species were apparently equally eager to shake off the dust of labor after shift change with a cold one. She’d parked her car at a discreet distance to watch
the comings and goings, while sipping coffee and taking pictures. It still amazed her. Here was a totally unknown race living, working, and breeding right in the heart of the city, under the very noses of its citizens and law enforcement officials. A race with its own culture, its own community, its own rules. And its own predator.
She was all about “live and let live,” but one of them had ended that right for one of hers, and that could not be ignored. She had a plan in mind, not a great one, but it was a start. She’d show the pictures to Sandra Cummings’s friends and see if any of them were
familiar. Maybe it was as simple as an imagined slight on the sidewalk, a discouraged advance at the bar that had triggered the attack.
She glanced down to fit her empty cup into its holder and turned back with viewfinder to her eye. But instead of focusing on a group of laborers on the opposite sidewalk, her screen filled with a row of sharp canine teeth.
She lunged backwards, trying to scramble over the gearshift column as hands reached through the open window to grip Max’s jacket and drag her toward the door. Three of them stood next to her car, and none of them looked like they were there to ask her to join them for a drink. With her elbows pinned between the seat and the wheel, and her holster at the small of her back, there was no room to grab for her gun. She went for the automatic window. Before it had whirred half way up, one of them smashed it off the track.
Writhing and cursing, she was pulled against the window frame with enough force to split the skin on her forehead. The feel of warm blood beginning to ooze sparked her temper and determination. She popped the door handle and threw herself against it, knocking the one who’s had a hold of her off balance. She came out low, in a roll, slipping between them to come up to her feet, her pistol quickly wedged up beneath one’s chin.
“I’m a detective with the NOPD. Back off,” she snarled at the other two. When they didn’t heed the warning, she nudged the barrel more meaningfully. “Whatdaya say, sport? Wanna take one for the team, or do you tell them to stand down?”
The one she held onto dropped and feinted to the side. A jarring blow to her forearms from another numbed her fingers and her pistol clattered to the ground. Blood dripping into her eyes, she’d assumed an aggressive stance, ready to take on the three of them when her elbows were suddenly clamped from behind.
“Here now, what’s this? Easy, Detective Pretty. Nobody’s gonna hurt you.” She recognized the drawling tones of Jacques LaRoche’s second in command, the red-headed Philo ibideaux.
Contrarily she kicked out at the one closest to her, the toe of her boot in his kneecap sending him stumbling back with a howl. Tibideaux gave her an eyeball-rattling shake. “Stop it now.” To the others, he said brusquely, “What’s going on?”
Her camera was recovered from the car, a damning bit of evidence quickly crushed etween heel and pavement.
Cee Cee demanded, “I want to see LaRoche. Take me to him.”
“Do you now? Does Savoie know you’re here?”
She said nothing.
“I thought not.” Tibideaux pushed her to one of the others then, bent to pick up her gun. “Hang onto her. Careful, she bites. And be careful you don’t go bruising her, or Savoie might just bite off your head.”
With Tibideaux leading the way, they dragged her down the alleyway to the entrance of the Shifter club. Once inside, she realized her mistake. She had no advantage here. She was in an alien world where her badge meant nothing.
The only way she was going to get out alive was on sheer bravado and Max
LaRoche was tending bar for the first-shift crew, who still wore their work clothes and smelled like the docks. They were immediately aware of her, picking up her human scent then turning almost as one to stare in hostile challenge. The low lighting glinted off ruby flickers in their eyes.
Only LaRoche offered a welcoming smile, feral showing of teeth.
“Detective, what a surprise. If you’re looking for Savoie, he’s not here.”
“She ain’t here to socialize,” Philo told him. With a lithe move, he vaulted the bar and leaned in close to whisper something to his boss. Though there was no change in his expression, Cee Cee could feel LaRoche tense.
“Take over here for me, Tib, whilst I make some talk with the detective.” He handed Tibideaux the rag he was using to swab out glasses in exchange for the police-issue weapon and circled out from behind the bar. He was huge, easily six foot six or better and all of it bulky muscle. He took Cee Cee’s elbow, his dinner-plate sized hand gentle but firm. “Let’s you and me sit down a spell, Detective. You want something from the bar? On the house.”
“No. Thank you.”
He steered her through the crowd, up into the top tier of tables that were empty this early in the day. From there they could oversee the room and not be overheard, since the sound system was pounding decibels down like a heavy rain. LaRoche held out a chair for her,
then turned the one opposite around so he could straddle the seat and lean meaty
forearms upon its back as he studied her.
“Are you stupid?” he asked mildly.
“You don’t have the look of stupid about you, Detective, but I could be wrong. Look down there. That’s no petting zoo, darlin’. With half a reason, they’ll turn you into a bar snack.”
“Is that what one of them did to Sandra Cummings?”
He said nothing for a long minute. When he finally spoke, his tone was rough with impatience. “How you think it is that you knew nothing of us? How you think we live here, right in the middle of all you Uprights like we was invisible? Because we work to stay that way, cher. You think you can clicketty- click your pictures and show them to the world? I don’t think so. What are we gonna do about you, Detective?”
“Help me do my job so others won’t figure out what I know. Others who have no reason to keep quiet about it.”
He frowned at that. “You think if I knew who did this careless, dangerous thing, it wouldn’t have been dealt with by now? And believe you me, Detective, our ways of dealing with them who threaten our secret are a lot more final than yours. That’d be true even if it was Savoie’s doing, now that he’s one of ours.”
That set her back in surprise then had her bristling up defensively. “It wasn’t Max.”
“I didn’t say it was, darlin’. I’m just saying that what he done in the past, him and that other fella, brought a lot of attention to things we don’t want considered. You done a right fine job of tidying up after Ben Spratt, hiding what he was behind a bunch of smoke and
mirrors. We appreciated that, but know you done it for Max, not us. But if we go down, he goes down. There’s no way to separate him from us any more.”
“I need to find this killer. If I don’t, someone else will. And that someone else won’t be playing kissy face with Savoie or give a damn about any of you.”
LaRoche chuckled at her gruff tone and gritty logic. “Does he know you’re here?”
“I don’t run my investigation through him.”
A bigger laugh. “You’re not stupid, cher, you’re dangerous. And I like that about you.” Then he sobered. “If one of our kind is killing yours, it’s our problem as much as yours, Detective. If we find out before you do, we’ll take care of it our way. Now go back to your world and forget about ours, lest you become the next statistic.”
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