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Authors: Stella Cameron

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French Quarter

BOOK: French Quarter
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Copyright © 1998 by Stella Cameron

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the publisher.

Any similarity to actual persons or events is purely coincidental.

KEY WEST Teaser Copyright © 2011 by Stella Cameron

DARKNESS BOUND Teaser Copyright © 2011 by Stella Cameron

All rights reserved.

Excerpt from DARKNESS BOUND printed with permission of Grand Central Publishing

For Jerry, the love of my life

Portrait of a Scoundrel

Α scoundrel, a vicious man, he goes with a leer on his lips, winking his eye, shuffling his foot, beckoning with his finger.
Deceit in his heart, always scheming evil, he sows dissention.
Disaster will overtake him sharply for this, suddenly, irretrievably, his fall will come.

Proverbs 6:12-15



The towel settled over the man’s face, his shoulders, his chest. A big towel, Jack Charbonnet thought, and damp. It made a white death mask of Errol Petrie’s features, a shroud for his body on the stark tiled floor.

Jack watched the scene framed by the partially open door into the bathroom.

He took several more steps into the bedroom and reached the foot of the empty bed. He heard the beat of his own heart, but felt nothing. Nothing.

An urge to shout imploded. If he shut his eyes and opened them again, he’d see more clearly, and Celina Payne wouldn’t be standing over Errol.

Bamboo ceiling fans turned slowly, clicked on their rods, their long, discolored cords swinging in the humid air. When Jack had entered the courtyard of the Royal Street house, another day was heating up in the Quarter. The warm breeze brought snatches of noise, and the scent of gardenias and old beer past the arched grillwork gate that closed off the yard.

Only minutes earlier he had walked through the streets, annoyed at Errol for insisting on a meeting before nine in the morning, when he knew Jack took his daughter to school every day, and wasn’t available until later.

None of that mattered now. Errol’s message must have come in while Jack was explaining
his mother-in-law that he couldn’t bring Amelia to her for the weekend. That had been after midnight. Then he’d turned off the ringer so he wouldn’t hear if she called again. And he hadn’t checked for messages until he got up. If he had listened before he went to sleep, he’d have called Errol back. .

Celina made a noise, a faint, choking sniff. He noticed she wore a loose yellow bathrobe, and
that her short, red-brown curls shone in the yellow overhead light. Her feet were bare. Disjointed parts of a picture he didn’t want to see.

Closing his eyes wasn’t going to make this go away. “Celina?” His voice grated obscenely in the still morning gloom behind closed shutters in the bedroom.

She choked again, and spun around. Her face shocked him afresh. Blοοdless, the skin might be fused to bone, and her dark blue eyes were vast and unblinking. She looked at him without recognition and caught hold of the doorjamb.

“Good God!” Jack said. The numb sensation in his limbs dissolved. He trembled inside, but adrenaline pumped through him and he strode to throw the bathroom door wide open.

“Εrrol,” Celina muttered. “Errol.”

Jack faced the bathroom. The footed porcelain tub came into full view. Pools of water puddled into dips in the uneven white-tiled floor where the boards underneath had warped.

He smelled what he should have smelled before: liquor. He’d brought the remembered scent of gardenias muddled with beer into the house with him, then been vaguely aware of Celina’s incongruously innocent lemony fragrance. The pungent odor of bourbon hadn’t registered.

His stomach constricted, and this time he did glance at Celina. She continued to grasp the doorjamb. Her eyes were squeezed shut, and she moaned.

Errol knew better than to take a drink—didn’t he?

Jack looked down at an outflung hand and forearm. Below the white towel, Errol’s long, muscular body was naked.

Naked but for a brilliant green rubber ring on his flaccid penis.

Celina gave a thin, broken cry. “Not Errol. He’s got so much to give, so much to do. We need him.”

Crouching, Jack used a finger and thumb to lift the towel until he could see Errol Petrie’s face, his sky-blue eyes wide open and glazed in death.

Celina cried out and stumbled to the foot of the bed. She clung to a mahogany post.

“What happened here?” His heart beat harder and sweat stuck his shirt to his back.

Her mouth opened and closed, without a sound now, as if she fought unsuccessfully for air.

“Speak to me.” Death, even violent death, had touched him before, but it hadn’t hardened him to the horror. “Celina, say somethin’.” The urge to shout had returned. He controlled it.

“Why are you here?” she asked at last, in barely more than a whisper.

“What the—” He bit back an expletive. “Errol called me late last night. He asked me to come first thing this mornin’. Not that it matters a damn why I’m here. Where’s the aid car? How long ago did you call the aid car?”

She shook her head.

“Tell me.”

She said, “It’s too late. He’s dead. He’s so cold, Jack.” He knew she was right, but he knelt and put an ear to his old friend’s chest and listened.

“I knew his heart wasn’t good,” Celina said. “He must have been in the tub when the pain started. But he wasn’t supposed to die. He’s too young to die. Dreams—”

“Dreams isn’t the issue right now,” he said, and didn’t care how sharply. “The foundation will land on its feet. I’ll see to that. You still haven’t told me what I want to know. How long has he been… How long, Celina? And what happened that would cause him to have a heart attack?” He was sure he already knew, but he wanted to hear it from the fair lady’s lips. He’d warned Errol to get rid of his so-called assistant, but he wouldn’t listen.

She had pressed her lips together and looked fixedly across the room. He followed the direction of her gaze and got up. A tangle of clothing lay on the blue and green silk rug near an antique sea chest that had been in Errol’s family for more than a hundred years. Jack walked closer.

Celina made another strangled noise. He didn’t turn back. The clothing was underwear, a woman’s skimpy black silk bra and panties, garter belt and stockings. To the left, between the bed and the bathroom, there was something else black. A long piece of silk, like a narrow scarf. Another scarf caught his eye—still tied to one of the posts at the head of the bed. A glove made of shiny black fur poked from beneath a rumpled pillow.

Fury pumped the blood through his veins. He turned on Celina Payne, ex-Miss Louisiana, the woman he had feared for months was spending more time with Errol than either of them would confess. “I warned him to stay away from you. I told him you were bad news for a man like him.”

“And you were wrong,” she shot back. “He already had a bad heart. That wasn’t my fault.”

He pointed to the heap on the carpet. “What do you think it would do to New Orleans’s favorite charity if a picture of this room made its way onto the front page of some rag?”

“What he did with his own time should be his business.”

He laughed and felt his throat tighten. “You’d like that, wouldn’t you? If anything grubby could be brushed under the rug just so you could continue to be the Dreams Girl? You and your parents got plenty out of Errol’s nonprofit organization, and you want to keep on gatherin’ the goodies. And all in the name of makin’ the dreams of dyin’ children come true.”

The speed with which she moved caught him off guard. She flew at him and he barely stopped them both from falling. Her fists threw a frenzy of ineffectual punches at his body and head. He flinched, but captured her wrists and shook her.

At once she stood still. The anger in her eyes fled, replaced by...resolve? Resolve, and intense dislike for him. Not that there had ever been any doubt about their mutual distrust.

“The police have to be called,” he told her.

“The aid car has to be called,” she said without inflection. Her soft voice reeked of old New Orleans society, the kind of old New Orleans society that couldn’t be bought. “The aid people will call the police,” she added.

Suddenly she was so cool. He released her and put some distance between them. “You seem to have this all worked out.”

“Someone has to. If you think about it, you’ll see I’m going to do what has to be done.”

He looked back at Errol, then at the floor.

“You made your point very well, Jack. The last thing we can afford is mud on the reputation of Dreams. So we’re going to help each other make sure that doesn’t happen.”



Celina heard the coldness in her own voice and bowed her head. One thing she’d always been proud of was her ability to appear calm under pressure. Mama wasn’t “steady,” Daddy had always warned. For her parents’ sake it was up to Celina to be real steady. Evidently she’d perfected her act very well. Too bad she felt as if she were disintegrating inside.

Jack Charbonnet gave her one of his unfathomable stares. “You didn’t even bother to get Antoine.”

When he was outside, Antoine was the Royal Street gardener. When he was inside, he filled whatever position was necessary. “He doesn’t live here. It’s early.”

“Not that early. He was working on the banana trees in the courtyard when I arrived. When did Errol collapse?”

“It was seven or so when I found him.”

“It’s after nine now. Antoine gets here before seven, doesn’t he?”

What was he trying to say, to ask? “I didn’t go for Antoine because I didn’t think about it. That’s all I can tell you.”

“That man has worked for Errol for years. He loves him. You knew that.”

“I didn’t think to get him,” she repeated. Jack Charbonnet wouldn’t batter her into losing control.

He turned on his heel and returned to crouch over Errol. Celina’s legs wobbled and she sank to sit on the floor. Errol ran Dreams as a tight ship. Every penny they took in from auctions and other fund-raisers went to terminally ill children and their families, to funding services to those children, and minimally for the support of Errol and his staff of two: Celina and Antoine. Rooms on the other side of the second-story apartment—antique stores occupied the ground floor on Royal Street—rent-free rooms were a good part of Celina’s compensation.

Jack Charbonnet didn’t approve of her living there. She knew because she’d overheard him telling Errol as much. Today she’d seen how he assessed what she wore, and she remembered his voice when he said, “Sure, your private lives are separate. And you didn’t hire her as the Dreams Girl to wring donations out of horny old men—rich, horny old men, because she’s beautiful and sexy? She’ll bring trouble, Errol. Get rid of her.”

“Errol,” she whispered, and touched a fingertip to the tumble of green sheets and green and gold spread spilling over the side of the bed. She’d chosen them for him to replace his threadbare linens. “Oh, Errol.” Her dear friend, her best friend, the one she could rely on to listen, to smile, and to help when she needed help. He’d told Jack he was wrong about her, and warned him not to raise the subject again.

Errol was dead.

Yesterday he’d told her she looked tired and
given her this morning off. She had been in bed when calls began switching through from his lines to her phone, and she came to see if he was all right.

Celina shuddered. How long had she stood there, looking down at him?

She had panicked, almost fainted, then refused to believe he wouldn’t come to and smile at her.

What was the sickly smell in the room? The fans moved sluggishly through heavy air.

Errol’s blond hair, turning gray at the temples, was clearly visible to the left of Jack’s lowered knee. Celina didn’t think Jack was looking at Errol, but that he had covered his own face with his right hand.

She heard his long, slow exhalation, then he stood up and said, “Why did you put the towel over his face?” without turning to her.

“Ι don’t know.” She felt ill, but she was calmer now. “How do you know why you do things when you do them?”

“Most people have an idea.” He swept up the towel.

She drove her fingers into her hair. “Most people don’t find their best friend dead on the bathroom floor with”—she waved her hands—”like that—like he is. I couldn’t bear that he was so vulnerable. His eyes. He looked so shocked.”

“Your best friend?” Jack turned around and walked slowly into the bedroom. He still held the towel. “Curious thing to call your boss. I’m going to ask you again. What went on here?”

He stood so close, she had to crane her neck to see his face. “That’s where I found him—how I found him. I don’t know what happened.”

According to talk, Jack’s roots were Cajun on his father’s side, and they showed in his thick, black hair, which he wore short, and in a lean face that never appeared completely clean shaven. His eyes were that hazel color, perhaps more green than hazel, and could hold an unblinking intensity Celina found uncomfortable. A tall man, his broad-shouldered body was muscular but slender, and he moved with deceptively languid grace. They said he was dangerous, but the reasons were never clear. A man to fear, she’d been warned by her mother, but Bitsy Payne feared most people whom she didn’t consider her social equal.

“You didn’t expect me this mornin’, did you?” he asked in his deep, slow tones. His drawl wasn’t as strong as some, but it was enough to be another reminder that Jack Charbonnet’s family tree was very different from Celina’s. He made her too aware of being female, had done so from the first time they met. She didn’t recall another man having the same, or even a similar impact on her.

“No. Jack, Errol—”

“You didn’t call for help because you were tryin’ to decide what to do next.”

He managed to make every sentence sound like an accusation. “I was trying to make sense out of this,” she told him.

“Shouldn’t have been tough. Unless you didn’t know Errol’s father died of a heart attack at fifty. His uncle was fifty-two. Errol ignored it, but he’d already been told he was high risk.” He glanced at the pile of women’s underwear he’d seen on the floor earlier. “I thought he had himself under better—Never mind. If I had to go on a hunch, I’d say he died because somethin’ was too much for him.” His eyes narrowed and he looked her over slowly enough to make her even more edgy.

She averted her face. “I knew about his heart. But I can’t believe he’s dead. I just can’t believe it.”

“Regardless of what you can believe, we’d better get back to the plan you were working on before I got here.”

Celina held quite still for a moment before looking up at his face again. “Plan?”

“The one you said I’m goin’ to help you with. That’s the one you started on when you decided not to call for help when he died.”

“I wasn’t with him when he died.”

“So you say.”

Her head hurt. “So it was. I wish I had been there when he collapsed. Perhaps I could have helped him.”

He strolled to pick up the underwear. Very deliberately he held each piece aloft.

Celina blushed. Α pair of black panties that were nothing more than a small triangle and some strings, and a transparent black bra with lace stitched around holes cut out where a woman’s nipples would be. The stockings had lace at the tops but were torn. The garter belt was another abbreviated collection of elastic covered with gathered silk. Jack threw the black scraps on the bed.

She got to her feet. “I’m going to have to leave this room. I can’t bear it here any longer.”

He went around her and closed the door. “I understand your feelin’ that way,
feel the same way, but you and I aren’t goin’ anywhere without some really careful thought, remember? There’s too much tied up in Dreams to allow it all to slip away now.”

Goose bumps ran along her skin. “So you are worried about the foundation losing money.”

“Money doesn’t have a thing to do with this. Everything he was working for depends on people being willin’ to hitch their wagons to Dreams with absolute assurance that the last thing they’ll be faced with is scandal.”

She crossed her arms. “I know all about what makes the foundation click. I know it from every angle. You invested in Dreams. Errol told me you did. A lot of money.”

“Sure I did. At the time…No, you don’t have to know any more about my part in everythin’. You’re an employee, an employee I didn’t want hired, let alone set up in an adjoining room to Errol’s.”

“I’m not in an—”

“Figuratively speaking,” he said, blinking slowly. “All you have to do to get here is walk through a few rooms. 1 figure we’re in this together,
so I’m going to say things I wouldn’t say otherwise. Errol was a
recoverin’ addict.”

Did he think she’d worked side by side with Errol for almost two years and known him for years before that without being aware of the demons he’d fought?

“He came through a long, dark tunnel. That was his description, not mine. But he made it through—almost.” His unflinching gaze moved beyond her again. “Dammit, he tried to get past it. He surely did try.”

Celina had always assumed Jack knew Errol’s secrets, but evidently Jack had no notion she might know them, too. “He must have been in the bath and felt ill. There’s water all over. He made it out and collapsed.”

“It could have happened that way,” Jack said. “It probably did. He was a charismatic man. Women always fell for him That’s what made it so hard on him.”

She couldn’t stand to hear it all aired, all of the past Errol had managed to bury. “He was a good man, the best.”

“He was a recoverin’ alcoholic.”

“Member of a large club, according to what Ι hear,” Celina said, thinking of her own stepfather.

“The stuff was more poisonous to him than to most of the other members. He was told he had what amounted to an allergy. It scared him. But he fell off the wagon this time.”

She’d smelled liquor of some kind. “You don’t know he was the one—”

“The one doing the drinking? Rather than the lady who owns those?” He pointed to the clothing on the bed. “Okay. Let’s say you weren’t the one he had fun and games with before he died. He didn’t need you flauntin’ yourself in front of him seven days a week. Turnin’ him on so he might be more vulnerable.”

Even the word stunned her. She spread her arms. “Have you ever seen me

He looked her over from head to foot and gave a short laugh. His all-seeing stare brought a rush of heat. Her own intense response shook her. He said, “Do you get to be Miss Louisiana without flauntin’ yourself?”

She winced. “You weren’t talking about a beauty pageant six years ago. You were suggesting I’ve been trying to attract Errol in a sexual way right here and now.”

“Haven’t you?” He bent forward from the waist and studied his feet as if seeing his shoes for the first time. “You think you’re hard on the eye dressed in a thin robe like that? Or dressed in any old thing at all?”

“Why don’t you say what’s really on your mind? Yes, Errol was a recovering alcoholic. He was also a recovering sex addict.”

Jack’s head snapped up. “How the hell did you know that?”

“He told me. Back at the beginning when he hired me he told me and said if I had any concerns about that he’d understand.” The amazement in Jack Charbonnet’s fine eyes gave Celina satisfaction. “His father was a friend of my parents. I knew Errol from when I was a little kid. When he got married I was the flower girl. Natalie was a bitch. He never should have married her.”

Jack’s sudden, sharp laugh wasn’t what she’d expected, and she smiled involuntarily.

“He never told me all that—about bein’ acquainted with you before. I was at the wedding too. I don’t remember the flower girl. I didn’t know you had that kind of shared history.”

“You never bothered to find out.”

Jack ran a hand around his neck. He said, “We’ve got to make decisions and act. Errol’s death is tragedy enough. What good would it do if his name got tainted by whatever went on here?”

She shook her head.

“It’s not important,” he told her. “As you said, what a man chooses to do in the privacy of his own home is his own business—as long as he does it with consenting adults, and by the look of what I’ve seen so far, the lady he was with was very adult.”

Tears filmed her eyes. She nodded.

“We’re going to clean up anything that didn’t belong to Errol, then raise the alarm. Errol asked me to come over, but he was out when I got here. Or that’s what 1 thought. You came along—ready to go to work—and we shot the breeze for a while. We waited. Then we got suspicious and came looking. And voilà. Does that work fur you?”

“You must have made up a lot of stories. You’re good at it.”

“As a matter of fact, I’ve got at least one fan who thinks I am. But this is a simple story. It’s even got elements of truth in it.”

She began to tremble again. “Then what?”

“They come and deal with…They come and take care of things.”

“I didn’t mean that. I meant afterward. Dreams.”

“It’ll go on,” Jack said as if speaking through his teeth. “After he lost his boy, he behaved like he was givin’ up. Then he came up with the idea for Dreams and it kept him going. It became his life and it does so much good.”

She wanted to turn on him, to tell him that she knew he wasn’t the kind of man who stayed awake nights worrying about sick children, that she knew Errol had been paying back the big loan he’d got from Jack back at the beginning. And the payback had been with big interest attached. Jack wanted to he sure his investment continued to pay off.

“I’ll be in the bathroom,” Jack said. “The bedroom’s all yours. Nothing gets left behind unless it belongs to Errol. Got that?”

Oh, yes, sir.
She gathered the handful of black silk and held it at arm’s length. “What am I supposed to do with it?”

“Grow up,” Jack said, but his voice was even. “Use your head and start looking around.”

He went into the bathroom again. Celina didn’t want to look, but couldn’t stop herself. He made a ball of the towel and dropped it, then made a visual search of the space.

“How—” Celina swallowed. “How long ago do you think he died?”

“I’m not a pathologist.” He bent over Errol’s body.

Celina saw what he was doing and looked away. How could the act of touching a dead man’s penis be at once so personal yet so impersonal?

She picked up a long, black scarf from the floor and untied another from the head of the bed. The fur glove was almost hidden by a pillow. Celina took a tissue from the pocket of her robe and used it as a barrier between her fingers and the thing that disgusted her. She dropped the glove among the heap of silk.

BOOK: French Quarter
12.34Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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