by Debby Grahl
The Writers Coffee Shop Publishing House
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-61213-318-8
Print ISBN: 978-1-61213-317-1
[ Romantic Suspense, MF ]
A masquerade ball brings fashion designer Caterine Doucette and ex-cop Remi Michaud together for a night of passion. When Caterine inherits the family business, Remi must protect her and discover who is threatening her life. Caterine and Remi discover love while surviving in a world of greed and revenge.
Note: Prologue omitted.
Caterine sat in the morning sunshine at the Café Du Monde with her friend Elaine LaBeau. A mild February breeze blew off the Mississippi River, bringing with it the soulful notes of a saxophone.
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into coming here,” Caterine said as she bit into her hot beignet. “Do you have any idea how many calories are in these?”
“Oh, who cares?” Elaine replied. She wiped powdered sugar from her chin and sipped her café au lait. “Mardi Gras is only two weeks away. It’s time to be a little crazy. Besides, a few calories won’t hurt you.”
In the distance, the sound of a marching band could be heard. Elaine pointed. “People are beginning to gather for the Krewe d’Écrevisse parade. We’d better go if we want to find a place.”
They stepped from the cafe onto Decatur Street.
“Wow, there’s already a crowd,” Elaine said. “Let’s try over this way.”
They wove their way around families with small children, college students holding go cups from Pat O’Brien’s, and a group of ladies wearing dental conference badges featuring smiling teeth.
“I really should call Grandmère and let her know I might be late,” Caterine shouted over the noise as she reached in her Chanel bag for her cell phone.
“Will you please relax? It’s not even ten o’clock. Ma Chérie doesn’t open until then, does it?”
“Then you don’t have anything to worry about.”
Caterine rolled her eyes. “I’m still expected to be at work on time.”
They passed a man, painted silver, juggling oranges and skirted around horse-drawn carriages lined up for French Quarter tours.
“This is about as close as we’re going to get,” Elaine said. The music of a high-stepping band and the singing and shouting of the second line grew louder as the parade approached Jackson Square. “And here they come.” She stood on her toes to get a better view. “Oh my God,” she gasped.
“What?” Caterine asked as she bounced up and down waving at a float on which hot peppers danced with crawfish in a gumbo pot.
“Nothing.” Elaine took her arm. “Let’s see if we can find a better spot.” “What’s the matter with you? This is fine.” Caterine laughed at the next float. “They must be red beans and rice.” She reached up and caught a string of silver beads. The crowd shifted and the laughter died on her lips when she saw what Elaine had already seen.
Across the square, his arms around a redhead Caterine knew well, stood Jonathan Day, the man she’d been dating for more than five months and the one man she thought truly cared about her. Stunned, the beads slipping from her hand, she whispered, “He told me he had to go to Mobile, and that’s why he couldn’t take me to your party.”
Elaine tugged her arm. “Come on, Cat, let’s go.”
Taking shallow breaths, Caterine swallowed back waves of nausea and stared in disbelief as Jonathan bent to give the woman a kiss more appropriate in the bedroom than a public street. Tears of anger and humiliation burned the back of her eyes at the memory of her own passionate night in his arms, and how terribly wrong it had gone.
Elaine took a step forward. “Bastard. Let’s let him know we’re here. I want to tell him to his face what a scumbag he is. I can’t believe he’s with her out in public. The jerk doesn’t even care if you see him.”
“He’d expect me to be at work, not here.”
“Yes, but anyone who knows you could have seen them. The guy is scum.” Elaine turned. “Are you all right? You look a little green.”
With every ounce of willpower she possessed, Caterine fought to maintain her composure. I will not cry, I will not cry, she mentally recited. She wanted nothing more than to do as Elaine suggested and confront Jonathan, but years of proper conduct drilled into her by her grandmère stopped her. “I’m fine, let’s go. I’m not about to cause a scene on a public street, nor will I give that woman the opportunity to gloat.”
“Too late, he’s seen us,” Elaine said.
Caterine’s eyes locked briefly with Jonathan’s before she quickly turned away, crying out as her stiletto heel caught in the uneven pavement. As she lost her balance, she felt a strong male arm tighten around her.
“C’est bien, cher. I’ve got you,” he said in a smooth Cajun patois as he held her close.
“Oh!” Caterine gasped as she was pressed against his hard chest. For an instant, she forgot to breathe as she gazed into deep blue eyes set in a handsome, chiseled face. “Excuse me,” she stammered as she righted herself.
With his arm still around her, he smiled, showing even, white teeth. “No problem. I’m glad I could help.”
Time seemed to stand still as they stood staring into each other’s eyes. Suddenly, Caterine wanted nothing more than to put her arms around this stranger’s neck and bury her face in his chest. Appalled, she stepped from his embrace and whispered, “Thank you.” Unnerved by the mental image, she hurried away.
“For heaven’s sake, Caterine, slow down,” Elaine called. “You’ll break your neck in those heels.”
When Elaine fell into step beside her, Caterine wiped away fresh tears and turned to her friend. “Do you think I’m cold and unfeeling?”
Elaine gave her a quick hug. “Of course not. You’re one of the kindest, most warm-hearted people I know.”
Caterine waved her arms in the air. “Then what’s wrong with me? I’m twenty-five years old and can’t keep a boyfriend.”
“Cat, you need to calm down.”
“I don’t want to calm down. For once in my life, I want to have a screaming fit. Laurie Conway? What a slap in the face. I hope the bastard catches some kind of disease.”
At the sound of Jonathan’s voice, Caterine quickened her steps. “Cat, please wait,” he called again.
Knowing he’d follow her all the way to Ma Chérie, Caterine gritted her teeth and turned to face him.
“What do you want me to do?” Elaine asked.
“Stand right there. I may need you to keep me from killing him.” Elaine grinned. “Go for it.”
An out-of-breath, slightly disheveled Jonathan stopped in front of Caterine and gave her a sheepish grin. “Cat, if we could speak in private, I can explain.”
Caterine dug her nails into her palms to keep from slapping his face. “The only thing I have to say to you is go to hell.” When she turned, Jonathan grabbed her arm.
Caterine narrowed her eyes. “Take your hand off me.”
He squeezed her arm harder. “You’re going to listen to me.”
She tried to pull away. When he held tight, anger turned her voice to steel. “If you don’t remove your hand from my arm immediately, I’m going to call the police.”
“Let her go, you bastard,” Elaine said.
“Elaine, this is none of your business, stay out of it,” he demanded before turning his attention back to Caterine. “Cat, sweet, this is a total misunderstanding. Laurie and I are just friends, that’s all.”
Caterine snorted with derision. “Jonathan, you’re not only a cheat, you’re a liar as well. As far as I’m concerned, you and Laurie Conway are meant for each other.”
Jonathan put his face inches from hers and growled, “You listen to me, you haughty little bitch. If you weren’t such a frigid block of ice, I wouldn’t have had to turn to another woman for pleasure. You and all the Doucettes act like you’re better than everyone else, but I’d rather have a warm, willing woman in my bed than one who’s incapable of showing emotion.”
Each of his words cut Caterine to her core. How could she have ever let down her guard with this man? How could she have trusted him enough to open herself for more hurt? Hadn’t she learned at a young age how easily love could be thrown back in her face? She’d encased herself in a protective shell, and she’d been foolish enough to allow Jonathan to crack it open. When he’d tried to make love to her, she had truly wanted to respond, but the passion wouldn’t come.
I’m not cold and unfeeling, I’m not, I’m not, she repeated to herself. She wrenched her arm from his grasp. “You want emotion, how’s this?” She swung back and slapped his face. “I hope you and that slut will be happy together.”
“Is there a problem here, cher?”
Caterine turned in surprise to see the man from the parade who’d caught her when she’d tripped. Her cheeks burned with mortification as she opened her mouth to respond, but nothing came out.
His gaze went from Caterine to Jonathan, whose hand covered his reddening cheek, then back to Caterine. “I’m not trying to intrude, but you looked like you could use some help. If I’m wrong, tell me and I’ll leave.”
“Then leave.” Jonathan sneered. “Because this is definitely none of your concern.”
He ignored Jonathan and stared at Caterine. “That’s for the lady to decide.”
Caterine’s heart was pounding so hard she didn’t know if she could speak. The power and sex appeal emanating from this man both thrilled and terrified her. She swallowed hard and stammered, “Th-thank you. I appreciate your offer of help, but my conversation with this man is through.” She turned to Elaine. “Come on, let’s go.”
“Oh my God!” Elaine exclaimed when she’d caught up with Caterine. “Do you believe what just happened? Your very own Cajun knight in shining armor came to your rescue.”
Caterine shook her head. “I can’t absorb any of it. I need to sit down. Here’s a coffee shop. Let’s go in.”
Seated at a corner table, they ordered two cafés au lait.
Caterine sighed and rubbed her temples. “If anyone had told me when I got up this morning that my day would turn out like this, I wouldn’t have believed them.”
Elaine grinned. “I’d say things are going rather well. You actually slapped Jonathan the jerk while being rescued by a hunky guy.” She leaned closer. “And he sure seemed interested in you. I’ll bet he could make you forget all about the creep. You know what? I should go back and see if I can find him and invite him to my party tonight.”
Horrified, Caterine shook her head. “Don’t you dare. I was embarrassed enough having him witness that performance. Elaine, I’ve never lost my temper and hit someone.”
“Jonathan was acting like an ass and deserved it. I wish that guy would have laid him out flat.”
Caterine couldn’t help but smile. Ever since they’d met on their first day at McGehee’s, a private girls’ school in the Garden District, Elaine had taken Caterine under her wing. Elaine had smooth chin-length auburn hair, expressive green eyes and, thanks to the influence of two older brothers, a don’t-mess-with-me attitude. Caterine, on the other hand, had just lost her parents and gone to live with her grandparents. Not only had she been shy, she’d had the self-confidence of a mouse. As adults, Elaine retained that no- nonsense attitude, and Caterine’s confidence had grown with her success as a fashion designer, but in relationships she was still that scared little mouse. Elaine cocked her head. “Speaking of Jonathan, I want you to know I never cared for him. I always thought he was a little too arrogant and a lot in love with himself.”
A mixture of surprise and confusion filled Caterine’s face. “Why didn’t you tell me this before?”
“Because I thought you were crazy about him, and I didn’t want to interfere.”
Her face crumpled as she fought back tears. “Perhaps I need some kind of
counseling. Considering my severely dysfunctional family, it’s no wonder I’m unable to have a normal relationship. The way I was treated after my parents died taught me that if you don’t let people close, you can’t get hurt.” She lowered her voice. “But I’m tired of being alone. I want to be able to give my heart to a man, to let him hold me and make love to me. But when I do, it all goes wrong.”
Elaine took her hand and squeezed. “First, you’re as sane as I am and nothing like your hateful family. As soon as the right man comes along, you’ll be able to shower him with so much love and affection you’ll probably drown the poor guy.”
As a tear trickled down her cheek, Caterine laughed. “Yeah, right.”
Elaine glanced at her Rolex. “Damn, look at the time. The caterers will be at the house in a half hour. I have to run and catch the streetcar. Will you be all right?”
Caterine nodded and hugged Elaine. “I’ve survived this before and I’ll survive it again.”
“I’ll see you later,” Elaine said. “I can’t wait to see your costume. What will you be?”
Caterine smiled. “Why, an ice princess. What else?”
Intrigued, Remi Michaud watched the pretty, petite blonde and her friend hurry away. Forget it, bro. The lady’s out of your league. Besides, she’s exactly the type you swore to stay away from.
On his way home after his morning walk, he’d decided to grab a cup of coffee and watch the parade. He’d been standing behind the blonde, admiring how the silkiness of her dress emphasized her nice ass and great legs, when she’d suddenly turned and stumbled into his arms.
He’d reached out to break her fall and found himself looking into a beautiful heart-shaped face, her sky-blue eyes brimming with tears. Stunned by the protective urge that came over him, his arm had tightened around her, and he’d found himself not wanting to let her go.
As she’d regained her balance and walked away, he’d taken an involuntary step toward her. At that moment, sunlight had reflected off the glittering diamond fleur-de-lis clip holding back her hair and he’d realized that every inch of her screamed uptown money. He’d been down that road, and if there was one thing this bayou boy did, it was learn from his mistakes.
When the man brushed past him heading in the direction of the girl, his cop instincts told him the guy meant trouble while his common sense told him to stay out of it. “Damn,” he’d cursed under his breath as he turned to follow. He’d never had any common sense anyway.
He’d caught up in time to see the bastard grab her arm. Before he’d had a
chance to knock him on his ass, she’d given the jerk a good slap. Remi smiled to himself. Good shot. At that point, he should have walked away, but he hadn’t.
Now, the two women had left, and here he stood facing off with some angry asshole he didn’t even know. Considering the fire in the guy’s eyes, if Remi couldn’t defuse the situation, he still might have to straighten him out. “Buddy, I have no problem with you. My concern was with the lady. She’s gone, so it’s over.” Remi turned to leave. Then the fool grabbed his arm.
“No, this isn’t over. You interfered in something you shouldn’t have. Someone needs to teach you to mind your own damn business.” Remi smiled. “And are you that someone?”
He narrowed his eyes. “I could be.”
Remi pushed the guy’s hand from his arm and leaned close. “Listen to me, you uptown preppy asshole. I’ll do more than slap your face. I’ll pound the shit out of you. So I suggest you get the hell away from me.” Remi could see the indecision in his eyes before he turned and walked away murmuring, “Fucking Cajun swamp rat.”
Remi thought about going after him but decided it wasn’t worth it and headed back the way he’d come. He made his way around the end of the parade, his eyes automatically scanning the crowd. Old habits die hard.
After Hurricane Katrina had brought to an end any illusions that the NOPD would clean up its reputation, Remi and his partner, Paul LaBeau, had quit and opened their own private security company. That was six months ago and things had been going fine, until now. He frowned.
Tonight Paul and his wife, Elaine, were throwing some fancy costume party and expected him to attend. Since the day they had partnered on a drug bust over in Algiers, Paul and Remi had hit it off, even though their backgrounds were as different as those of a lobster and a gator. But, compared to working the street busting lowlifes, a high-class Garden District party was a whole ’nother kettle of boiled crabs.
When he reached for his pack of cigarettes, his pocket was empty. “Damn.” Would the cravings ever quit? As he waved at a group of teenagers dressed as shrimp riding a large po-boy float, his cell phone rang.
“Hey, Remi, it’s Paul.”
“Yeah, man, where y’at?”
“Awright. How about you?”
“Elaine insisted I call to make sure you were coming tonight. I still can’t believe that, as long as we’ve been together, there was never an opportunity to introduce you two.”
“I don’t imagine she spent a lot of time hanging around the Eight District, but tell her I’m looking forward to meeting the one woman who can keep your sorry ass in line.”
Paul laughed. “That she does.” He hesitated. “By the way, I wanted you to know that, unless she comes with someone, Desiree wasn’t invited to the party.”
A familiar stab of humiliation shot through Remi at the mention of the
woman he had once thought he loved. This boy from the bayou had been fun as a plaything, but not good enough to marry. The revulsion he had seen in her eyes still gnawed at his insides like the constant craving for a cigarette. Well, he could kick the craving for Desiree as well as for nicotine.
“I was over her a long time ago, but thanks for letting me know.”
“I want you to have a good time,” Paul continued. “As a matter a fact, there’s someone I’d like to introduce you to. She’s a friend of ours. She’ll be here tonight and I could set it up.”
Remi scowled. “You playing matchmaker now, cher?” Paul chuckled. “Someone has to help you out.”
Visions of the blonde automatically passed through Remi’s mind, and he mentally shook it away. “Yeah, well, I’ll do just fine on my own.”
“Oh, come on. It’s time you got back out among the living. It can’t hurt to meet the lady.” Without waiting for Remi to reply, he asked, “What are you dressing as?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t thought about it.”
“Well, I’ll be Bluebeard, so look for me.”
“Later.” Remi placed his phone back in his pocket and paused to catch a string of silver beads tossed his way. Paul’s party was becoming more complicated by the minute. He’d make an appearance, meet Elaine, then leave. He knew Paul meant well, but the last thing he needed was to get involved with another uptown spoiled snob.
He slipped the beads over his head, tossed coins into a street musician’s open guitar case, and headed toward Toulouse Street and home.