KILLING ME SOFTLY, p.1
KILLING ME SOFTLY
Copyright © 2006 by Jennifer Miller.
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher, Harlequin Enterprises Limited, 225 Duncan Mill Road, Don Mills, Ontario, Canada M3B 3K9.
Killing Me Softly was written during the winter of 2004/2005, long before a hurricane named Katrina ever formed in the southeast Bahamas. As a native of south Louisiana, New Orleans holds a special place in my heart. The history. The spirit of the people. The dialect. The ambiance. The music. The food. The passion. The legends. These are the hallmarks of New Orleans that I set out to share with readers—the hallmarks that cannot be wiped away by any storm. Ever. Like so many others, I watched in horror during those chilling late August days when Katrina stormed ashore and wreaked her havoc, and I mourned for all that was lost. But in my heart I know the city of New Orleans will live on, and prosperity and vitality will return.
In the meantime let me tell you a story about a proud and passionate family named Robichaud, and a part of the country I love. South Louisiana.
Laissez les bon temps roulez!
Writing a book is a solitary experience … but creating one is not! So many people helped make this book possible: For my amazing partners in crime, Cathy, Linda, and Vickie, thank you for putting up with me! For my tremendous agent Roberta Brown, thank you for your unending faith. For my terrific editor Wanda Ottewell, thank you for believing, and for encouraging me to always dig deeper.
For my husband and daughter, thank you for your love, support, and patience.
And a special thanks to my father, for taking the picture that fired my imagination!
She was gone.
New Orleans police detective Cain Robichaud tore through the dense undergrowth, but even as he came to the clearing, he knew he would find no trace of the woman to whom he'd made love less than forty-eight hours before.
She was gone.
After ten years on the force, he was intimately familiar with the taste and feel and smell of lies and deception. He'd become a master at illusion. No matter how viciously he wanted to believe otherwise, he knew the instructions were just a ruse.
Savannah Trahan was gone.
"It's after midnight!" he called anyway. "I did everything you asked, damn it. Everything."
Come alone, the note had instructed. To the burned-out ruins. At midnight. Leave your service revolver at home.
"Where the hell is she?"
Memories pushed in on him, images he didn't want to see. The sheen of her eyes the first night they'd met. The lingering taste of wintergreen the first time they'd kissed. The feel of her blond hair tangled in his hands. The husky cry that had torn from her throat the first time they'd made love.
There had been no dimmed lights or soft music for them. No bed fitted with silk sheets. That would have been too trite, too tame.
There had never been anything tame about Savannah Trahan.
He'd tried, damn it. He'd done everything short of locking her away to keep her from stumbling too close to the truth. He'd warned her to quit poking around where she didn't belong. He'd made it clear what would happen if she didn't stop taking risks that didn't need to be taken. Graphically, he'd described the fate of others who hadn't known when to stop.
The memory of a single bullet hole dead center between a pair of open, lifeless blue eyes twisted through him.
Savannah hadn't listened. A hotshot investigative reporter, she'd been too drunk on the need for justice to turn away from the investigation that consumed her. And he … he'd been too drunk on her to see through her platitudes.
Now she was gone, and just as Cain expected, nothing but the screech of a lone owl answered his hoarse command. The creature sat high atop a skeletal cypress tree, its solitary form silhouetted by the wavery light of a crescent moon.
Dark urges ripped through him. He was a man of action—the blood of his Cajun ancestors ran hot in his veins. He wanted to be doing something, anything. Run. Punish. But all he could do was make sure he was heard.
"You're making a grave mistake!" he warned, surveying his surroundings. A row of crumbling columns jutted up toward the sky, solitary remnants of a once-grand plantation. No longer pristine white, the equally spaced columns had faded to ivory, scarred by the fire that claimed the manor they once embraced. The pillars stood as out of place among the sprawling oaks and towering cypress as Cain did among New Orleans society. Fingers were already being pointed. With every day that the darling of the Baton Rouge evening news remained missing, the whispers grew louder.
"You won't get away with this!" he vowed, striding toward what had been the front of the house. A set of wide rounded steps remained, rising from a tangle of ferns and leading to a verandah that no longer existed.
Cain mounted them. "Savannah!"
The hoarse cry barely registered above the yammering of crickets, but it reverberated through Cain like a shout.
"Savannah!" Heart hammering, he leaped down and ran toward the trees.
"Vannah!" She was the only one who'd ever called him Robi, an abbreviation of his last name. They'd been in bed the first time she'd used it, their legs tangled, hands joined. She'd smiled down at him and said, "More … Robi. More."
Now the leafy canopy stole the light of the moon. The darkness grew deeper, thicker, but Cain never missed a step. This was Robichaud land. He'd grown up scrambling across the gnarled undergrowth and climbing the emaciated cypress trees. He knew every twist and turn. Every hidden trap. Every danger.
"Robi…" Louder. Closer. "H-help me."
"Hang on!" Low-hanging branches slapped his face. "I'm here." He tore at vines and stumbled on the knee of an old tree, shouting her name with each step he took. Until the gauzy light of the moon illuminated a flash of pink—and a puddle of red.
"Vannah!" He lunged toward the oak and dropped to his knees, violating everything he knew about proper crime-scene management. He grabbed the silk blouse and drew it to his face, not giving a damn about the blood.
"Robi … h-help me."
His heart kicked violently against his ribs. "Cher," he breathed, twisting toward the voice.
The sight of the tape recorder embedded in a nest of Spanish moss at the base of a tree stopped him cold.
Deep inside, the hope he'd been harboring, as fragile as spun glass, shattered. She wasn't here. Had never been here.
"Cain!" The urgent, familiar male voice echoed through the wooded area.
"Where the hell are you?" came a second voice, this one older and strained. A creative stream of Cajun swearing echoed on the warm breeze. "Now is not the time for games!"
Two beams of light cut like knives through the gathering fog. "Cain! Answer me, damn it."
Numbly he balled his hands, still tangled in the mutilated silk blouse, into fists.
That's how they found him. On his knees. Holding her shirt. With blood staining his hands.
Detective Alec Prejean and Sheriff Edouard Robichaud tore through the moss and stopped abruptly, their flashlights aimed like weapons.
"Merde, mon neveu … what the hell have you done?"
Eighteen months later
The secluded bayou cottage Savannah Trahan had once used as a retreat from the cutthroat world of journalism still stood. There, away from prying eyes, she'd been able
Cannas bloomed in an untended rainbow of red and orange and yellow, guarding and inviting, hinting that once, someone had tended the overgrown grounds. Now waist-high weeds crowded out the walkway, the windows were dark, the door boarded shut.
A lone tire swung from a rope affixed to a stumpy old oak, the breeze easing it in and out of the gathering fog.
It's still there, after all this time.
Renee Fox drew a hand to her mouth and moved closer, careful not to step on a partially secluded anthill. There was a sadness to this remote corner of the swamp, an aura that extended beyond the stark fall day.
Here, in the farthest reaches of southern Louisiana, fall arrived with little of the orange-and-red fanfare northern climes enjoyed. Gray skies and cool damp winds slithered in and stripped the trees of their leaves, turning them from green to brown in the blink of an eye.
"This is private property, cher."
The disembodied voice came from behind her. Dark and drugging, its innate masculinity struck a chord deep within her. And without even turning to look, she knew who stood behind her.
Her heart revved and stalled, her breath hitched. A protest hammered through her. She'd not meant for him to find her here. She'd not meant for him to find her at all.
The Robichauds didn't take kindly to deception.
Brutally aware of the crossroads she'd reached, she took a steadying breath and turned toward him.
He stood beyond the clearing, a shadowy specter lounging against a cypress tree. Fog licked at his long legs and swirled about his chest, making her question whether he existed at all. But the woman in her recognized this was no mere spirit watching her. No ghost, no phantom, no illusion. She recognized him in a heartbeat, the man who resided in the darkest corners of the need that pushed her from day to day. Now he stood dead center between her and the truth she'd come to claim.
Cain Robichaud. She would have known him anywhere, anytime. His picture had been splashed all over the press, even in Canada. The shadows about him were darker, but little else had changed since his days as an undercover detective in the city of sin. Not the midnight-black hair, nor the midnight eyes. Not the square jaw, nor the dark stubble covering it. Not the wide, forbidding shoulders. Not the predatory stance.
He started toward her, his purposeful steps trampling the tall brown grass. "Perhaps you didn't hear me the first time, ma'am, but this is private property."
"I heard you."
He stopped so close his six-foot-plus body crowded out the rest of the world. "Then that makes you a trespasser."
She'd always enjoyed a challenge, had never been one to back down. That trait had always been her greatest asset and, according to her brother, her greatest liability.
"And here I thought Bayou de Foi was a friendly town," she said with all the sugary Southern charm she could muster. "Is this the way you welcome all strangers, or just lucky ones like me?"
The lines of his face tightened. "If you're looking for hospitality, you should head on back to New Orleans, belle amie."
Deep inside, she shivered. This man was not calling her pretty lady as a compliment.
"All a pretty lady like you has to do is name her price."
But not here, she knew instinctively. Not this man. He didn't play by others' rules. He sought to indulge or please no one but himself. "What I'm looking for can't be purchased."
"Everything has a price."
Even your soul? she wanted to ask, but the question jammed in her throat. "Then what's yours?" she surprised herself by asking.
She wasn't sure what she'd expected, but it wasn't laughter. The rough sound broke from his throat and echoed on the breeze. "My price is my penance," he said, then gestured toward the highway. "And like I said, this is private property. It's time for you to be going."
Time changed people. She knew that. So did loss and betrayal. After months of media notoriety, mentions of Cain Robichaud had trickled off to the point where recently there'd been nothing at all. Not even his photography Web site had been updated. It was as though the man had ceased to exist.
"I mean no harm," she said, realizing she had to backtrack. She'd been wrong to play footsy so quickly. "I was just…" Eventually, he would discover her real reason for being here, but the longer she kept him in the dark about her assignment, the safer she was. "Someone I knew used to come here."
Something sharp and volatile flashed through his eyes, but other than that he went unnaturally still. "There's no one here now but you and me."
Heat rushed through her, despite the cool fall breeze. He was right. There were just the two of them, a woman no one would look for and a man many believed belonged behind the steel bars of Angola State Penitentiary.
Vulnerable was not a word she liked, but she'd taken her safety for granted before, and it was not a mistake she would make again. "I can see that. I just—" had to come, to see what remained from that night in the not-so-distant past. "—needed to come here."
"Needed?" In that moment he sounded every bit the cop he'd once been, renowned for securing confessions. Coercion or seduction, the method hadn't mattered. "Trust me. A pretty thing like you, the only thing waiting for you out here is trouble."
That's where he was wrong. Remnants of a life gone by remained, a mystery begging to be solved. There were answers here. And truth.
But those words could not be said.
"I wanted to see if I could still feel her," she said, choosing her words carefully. "My friend who used to come here to clear her head." And to make love with the unorthodox detective who'd made her forget everything she knew about caution and survival.
His expression darkened. "Who?" For such a big man, he uttered the question in a deceptively soft voice. "Who is this friend?"
The urge to turn away was strong. Once she spoke the name, there would be no going back. She knew that. If she wanted to walk away, to pretend she'd not stood close enough to Cain Robichaud that she could scrape the whiskers darkening his jaw with her fingertips, she should do so now, before she waded into waters dark and deep. She had only to accept that some questions would never be answered, some needs never met.
She could accept neither.
"Savannah," she said, wincing at the way his eyes went cold and flat. "Savannah Trahan."
It was just a name, that's all she said, but the shadow that fell over Cain made it clear she might as well have cursed his soul to perdition and beyond. Because Savannah Trahan would never be just a name to this man, not when half the parish believed he'd murdered his former lover. Buried her on his land, some believed. Submerged her naked body in the swamp, others claimed. Burned her in a bonfire of her pictures, another said, and let her ashes scatter with the wind.
He stood there so horribly, brutally still, the planes of his face tight, his eyes like shrapnel. Even his mouth flattened, turning into a hard, uncompromising line, and in that instant, he looked frighteningly capable of the cold-blooded murder she'd read about in the newspapers.
Everything became sharper, more intense, carving out the afternoon in sharp relief—the screech of the egrets, the wind slashing through the skeletal trees, the fog soaking into her bones. Even the silence intensified.
He drew the moment out like a death sentence, then shattered it with his voice. "Who the hell are you?"
Relief flashed so profound she could taste it. He didn't recognize her. Then reason surfaced. Of course he didn't recognize her. There was no reason he should.
"I asked a question," he said in that same quiet voice. "Don't make me ask again."
An endless valley of lies lay ahead, but right here, right now, she chose to offer the truth. "A friend."
"A friend." He made the word sound like an offense. "Any friend of mine or Savannah's knows better than to come here."
The blade of pain nicked fast and deep. "If you're trying to frighten me,"
His smile was sardonic. "I suppose you're not trembling, either."
Refusing to give an inch, she hugged her arms around her middle. "It's cold."
"Maybe on the inside, but not on the out. Try again."
She angled her chin, said nothing. The man could see subtleties and nuances others couldn't. Once, the trait had made him a good cop. It also explained his success as a photographer. His work adorned the walls of galleries in New Orleans, as well as many a coffee-table book and calendar. His flair for shadows and light brought solitude to liveliness, sobriety to gaiety.
The quiet spun out between them, thick, pulsing. From the darkened copse beyond the clearing, dead leaves rustled and twigs snapped. It almost sounded as though—
He pivoted toward the cypress trees jutting up like a line of soldiers separating land from water. "Don't move." Slowly he edged forward. Each step, each movement, each breath still screamed the caution of the cop he used to be.
Renee's imagination sprinted along a dangerous path as she watched him go down on one knee.
Heart hammering, she turned to see a great blue heron perched atop the old swing.
"Perfect," Cain murmured as he angled a 35 mm camera toward the tire. "Ah … that's ma girl. Me, I'm going to be very, very good to you…"
Until his big hands cradled the sleek metal outfit, Renee hadn't noticed the camera hanging from his shoulder. Easy mistake with a man like Cain. His intensity made it impossible to register anything but the man.
Seconds blurred into minutes, minutes into a searing intimacy. Cain inched closer to the bird while his drugging voice urged the heron to stay in place.
"Let me have you," he coaxed. "I won't hurt you … just want to make you mine."
The black-magic drawl did wicked things to Renee's immunity. How could he shift from suspicious detective to reverent photographer in the space of one broken heartbeat?
Somewhere close by, more twigs snapped. The bird reacted instinctively, lifting its magnificent wings and soaring into the gray sky. But Cain remained crouched, staring at the point where the heron had vanished.