“I don’t know what you want me to add.”
“We’ll get to that eventually.” Derby Cain Casey tapped her fingers on her desk, and the random pattern seemed to unnerve the young man standing in her office. That was the main reason she did it, but it also relaxed her. When you ran a criminal empire as large and complex as hers, it was nice to have one thing that wasn’t planned or structured.
She was sure her tapping was part of the extensive file the FBI had amassed on her over the years. At least she hoped it was. If they had that bit of information it’d explain the only aspect of her life she never thought about.
“Look, you called me,” Angus Covington III said as he jammed his hands into his already low-slung jeans he obviously thought were appropriate for a job interview. “If you don’t want me, that’s cool, but I’m the best you’re going to see. I got a few more places to go if we’re done.”
“Do you have any idea what the job is?”
“If you want me to spell it out with techno talk, I will. But why waste each other’s time?”
“How many interviews like this one have you taken?” Cain swiveled her chair a little to the left so Angus wasn’t in her direct line of sight. If she’d ever met anyone whose name didn’t fit, it was this guy. It made her curious what Angus one and two were like. Were they as good at pretending as this poor excuse of some sort of grungy-punk wannabe was?
“A job’s a job,” Angus said and shrugged. “I came because it sounded more interesting than the oil-field stuff.”
“My father said once that everyone should take pride in three things,” she said, smiling at his confusion. He probably thought they were having two different conversations.
“Mine’s only proud of his martini-making abilities,” Angus said, his laugh too smug.
“I can see you’re not interested in learning anything.” She flattened her hand and faced him, lifting a finger to stop him from saying whatever flip drivel he planned to entertain her with next. “Don’t open your mouth unless I tell you to.”
Angus nodded, staring at her hand. That was the first hairline fracture in his demeanor.
“Good. You can listen when it’s called for. That should count as a point in your favor.” She softened her voice so he’d have to strain to hear her. “Tell me what you know about me. Give me the whole list.”
“Everything?” He stopped when she twirled her finger slowly. “Okay.” He recited a good list available in any newspaper or Internet search. It was well balanced enough to not sound contrived.
“Do you think I’m someone you should be afraid of?”
“No.” His uncertain tone made his answer more like a question. “Look.” He took his hands out of his pockets and held them up with his palms facing her. “I’ve got to go.”
“Go ahead, but aren’t you curious as to what I know about you?” She took a folder out of the top drawer and dropped it a little away from her. “This is my favorite part of the interview, but if you’ve got to go,” she waved him toward the door, but her words had nailed his feet to the floor, “then go.”
She held up a picture so he could see it. “You know, reviewing your references and finding out what they think of you.” She flipped through the pictures and smiled at his tight expression. If she had to guess, Angus wouldn’t be able to fit a flaxseed up his ass if she’d put a gun to his head and said go.
“How?” He took a step forward, but it was almost a stumble.
“It’s what I always tell my children—homework, Angus.” She flipped through the pictures and stopped at the one that’d intrigued her the most. “You have impeccable references, so you don’t have a problem there.” The picture she held up had been taken at his Quantico graduation. He looked so different now from the guy in the gray suit and tie, he seemed like another person in some bizarre alternate life. “It’s not often we see a blue-ribbon boy like you.”
“What do you mean?” Angus pulled his pants up and lost his flip attitude.
“I don’t mean anything, and I’m not going to hire you. Would you do me a favor anyway though?” She folded the picture of his wife and two small boys down the middle.
“Anything you want, name it,” he said, sounding like the Eagle Scout he was. Too bad there was no badge for dealing with her. That was bad luck for Angus.
“Deliver this for me,” she said with a smile as she held up an envelope.
“Can I have that?” He pointed to the picture of his family.
“I like keeping resumes on file, so no. You never know when I’ll need to call someone back with a question.” She stood and held her hand out to him. “Good luck, and those other interviews you’ve got lined up—you don’t mind me sharing your information with them, right? I’m guessing I know all your stops today.”
“No, and I won’t bother you again. Not ever.”
“Good,” she said as she squeezed his hand until he grimaced. “I’m not a fan of surprises.”
Emma Casey held on to Cain’s head security man, Lou, as she came down the stairs. She was reaching the end of her pregnancy and walked like she was about to compete in a limbo throw-down. Nothing was comfortable—not her clothes, the bed, or any position that called for her to lie down or stand up.
She was grateful Cain didn’t mind sleeping in an almost sitting position to provide her a backrest. “Remind me about this when I want another one in about six months,” she said, making Lou laugh. “Are we headed to the club this morning?”
They’d come home after their wedding ceremony to a different New Orleans. Emma loved Cain for so many reasons, but moving their ceremony to Wisconsin because of hurricane Katrina had proved the event was as important to Cain as to her. They’d come so far since her staggering betrayal of the one person she loved above all others. That Cain had not only forgiven her for that, but then stood before their family and God to make that commitment, was a gift she at times wondered if she deserved.
They’d been luckier than most with everything else on their return, considering where Cain’s businesses were located. Everything had opened quickly after some repair, but no flooding or looting had touched the house or clubs. The destruction of the city had caused some problems, but Cain also thought it provided room for expansion. That had brought its own unique problems, considering how the feds constantly scrutinized Cain’s business. More business, though, meant more power, and more power meant better security.
Emma stopped when the office door opened and a grungy-looking young man walked out, Cain right behind him with her hand on his shoulder. Whoever the guy was, he appeared as terrified as Cain was amused, so she shook her head at the two extremes. The FBI was always there watching, listening, scheming, and Cain got pleasure out of making their lives miserable, if this guy was any proof.
“Hello, pretty lady,” Cain said and winked at her. “Angus, don’t be rude.”
“Good morning, ma’am,” the guy said, but his eyes were on the front door.
“Lou, walk Mr. Covington to the gate so he can join his friends outside.” Cain brought up her other hand and squeezed the top of Angus’s shoulders hard enough to turn her fingers white. “Remember our conversation, and learn to stand your ground when it comes to your bosses. You don’t see them prancing in here, do you?” Cain tugged and brought him closer so she could talk into his ear. “I’m going to check in case you dropped anything, and if you did, I’ll come by and return it. If you’re one of those tattletales that reports what we discussed line for line, and someone gives me shit about it, I’ll come by and discuss that too.”
“Don’t worry. I meant what I said. You won’t see me again,” Angus said, finally glancing up at Emma as if she could help him escape the prickly situation.
“Then get going on your promises, Agent,” Emma said, ready for the guy to leave. She clicked her tongue when the front door closed, then accepted Cain’s help for the last three steps. “Why do you waste your time on those people?”
“It helps pass the time until I’m able to hold my kid and make love to my wife,” Cain said.
Emma was sure Cain’s laugh that followed was meant to set her at ease. Her doctors had put the brakes on their sex life for the next few weeks or until the baby came, and the result was an overprotective but highly hyperactive partner. What Cain was doing with her time probably had those people outside watching as anxious as she was for the baby to come.
“Channeling your energies, huh?” She combed Cain’s hair off her forehead and leaned back so Cain could kiss her. “I can live with that.”
“How are you feeling?” Cain moved behind her so she could hold her and still run her hands over her abdomen.
“About the same since this morning. It’s like having a truckload of potatoes strapped to my front, but I’m ecstatically happy about it.” She rested her hands over Cain’s and tilted her head to the side so Cain could kiss her neck. “Want to leave for school, then the club, before it’s time for our first nap of the day?”
“Did the teacher say why she wanted to meet?”
She heard the wariness in her voice that was always present when one of the kids had a possible problem. That it was Hannah this time around had made Cain irrational after she’d read the note Hannah handed over. Their daughter, as well as their son Hayden, had inherited not only Cain’s looks, but also the spirited nature of both her parents. Cain liked to call it their strain of bad grass running through them.
“Promise me you won’t lose your cool no matter what it is?” she said as she turned to kiss Cain’s chin. “Hannah is definitely a handful, and at times school gets in the way of that.”
“So they want her to conform like all the other sheep in plaid skirts?”
“Hannah Casey will no more turn into part of the herd than you did.” She put her hand on Cain’s arm and held on as she did her best to balance her load. The strain on her back was starting to make her life truly miserable. “I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“Come, Mrs. Casey,” Cain said, walking behind her and rubbing her back. “With any luck she got all your Verde calm genes when it comes to paying attention in school.”
“You Xeroxed her baby, so keep practicing your fairy tales for Hannah and this one, if you believe she takes after me,” she said as she quickly put her hand over the spot where the baby kicked hard. “They’re all yours, mobster, and they’re all like you. Live with it.”
“Considering how easily you bagged me, I have every confidence you can keep our brood in line, including me.” Cain helped her into the car and moved to get in the other side.
“Don’t forget that in case any old girlfriends show up,” she said as they pulled out, their shadows not far behind.
Special Agent Shelby Phillips stared at her reflection in the mirror in the ladies’ room of the FBI building in New Orleans and tried to ignore the dark circles under her eyes. She was back at work after her boss Annabel Hicks had asked her to help with the agent trying to usurp her. Before that, Shelby had been on forced leave after her parents had been killed. Their deaths still seemed bizarrely surreal. Things like cancelling their summer-trip plans ripped away pieces of her soul.
In one cruel, really unnecessary moment, she’d ended up alone in the world, and no amount of contemplation gave her an easy answer as to why. She’d started something with Cain’s cousin Muriel. But it’d been for her career—a fucking job. The twist of the knife had been when she fell in love with Muriel, even though she knew how they would end when Muriel found out what she was up to. It was still a mystery how Muriel had known, considering how careful she’d been, but while she was busy thinking of ways to bring Cain down, Shelby had missed the danger to her family.
“What a way to learn a lesson,” she said softly. The price of stupidity was incalculably staggering. She’d lost her parents and Muriel.
Cain, in the end, had nothing to do with what had happened. She and her team had never expected their old partner, Agent Anthony Curtis, would betray them like this. Anthony had gone to work for Juan Luis, and, according to the limited information revealed, Anthony had been instrumental in planning her parents’ murders to frame Cain.
How Cain had managed to find out what no law-enforcement agency in the world could was also a mystery, but her anger had momentarily disappeared when she read the paper Cain had held out to her that night in Wisconsin. If it’d been appropriate, she would’ve hugged her for the gift Cain had taken the time to give her right before her wedding. The small slip of paper had been burning a hole in her pocket from the moment she got it, but she still hadn’t built up the courage she’d need to do anything about it.
“Shelby, you okay in there?” Joe Simmons, her partner, asked after knocking. He hadn’t asked about the exchange with Cain, so she hadn’t been forced to lie, because she wasn’t giving up the information Cain had uncovered.
“Yeah, sorry,” she said, wiping her face with a dry napkin and hoping it didn’t completely screw up her makeup.
“Are you sure you don’t want to take a few more days?” Joe said when he saw her. “What happened was a life-altering event, as they say. No one’s going to blame you for staying home. After all, that you’re back at all was a favor to the boss.”
“I’ve been back for a while, Joe, so trust me, I’m okay. Do I miss my parents? Hell, yes, but work really does help more than sitting home alone with only the TV and my cat for company. I can’t shut my brain off there.”
“The cat won’t help you complete any performance reviews.”
“What, you’re going to flunk me?” she asked as they walked to the large conference room the team had set up in. “If you’re worried about your back, trust that you’re safe with me.”
“You can’t be serious? That’s the last thing on my mind.” He put his hand on her arm and stopped her before she made it through the door. “I’m talking to you as a friend.”
“I’m sorry.” She smiled and covered his hand with hers. “I need to learn to lengthen my fuse a little.”
“No worries. Just remember that you aren’t alone.”
Agents Lionel Jones and Claire Lansing had set up numerous boards of information throughout the room and were placing folders at the seats near their boss. Since their return from Wisconsin, where their surveillance had picked up nothing but Cain and Emma’s wedding, Cain had been a total saint. The guest list had been interesting for people who protested to only being bar owners, but the most interesting drama had been on their end.
It wasn’t often that the lead agent met the target of their surveillance, then literally ran away. But that’s exactly what Special Agent Ronald Chapman had done. He’d run all the way to Washington, and they hadn’t received any communications from him since. Then Agent Brent Cehan had been arrested on numerous charges incurred at the Piquant during Ramon Jatibon’s birthday party.
Brent swore Cain had beaten him, fed him drugs, and basically set him up with a prostitute that had been found beaten with Brent’s DNA on her wounds and her blood on his hands. Cain’s alibi, though, was rock-solid. Considering that every federal agent in the room and their surveillance backed it up, it was hard to dispute her word in this case. So for the moment, Brent was sitting in a crappy cell in central lockup, all alone, for his protection. The local jail had been necessary since the locals were handling all his alleged crimes—none of it was federal jurisdiction. If Cain had orchestrated it, then she’d done a masterful job at revenge since they could in no way help Brent, even if they’d been so inclined.
“Have a seat, everyone,” Annabel said as she flipped back to the first page of the file. “Before we begin, we need to have a conversation that can’t leave this room.”
Shelby sat down and gave Annabel her full attention because she was the only one who’d give them any answers. The agency always clammed up when it was convenient, especially when something potentially embarrassing came to light. When they had seen Ronald running from the field, she’d guessed Cain had struck again.
“Have you heard anything about Agent Chapman, ma’am?” she asked, figuring her team wanted to know as much as she did.
“Ronald’s taken some time off, and I was told to let it go.” Annabel leaned back and took a deep breath. “Do any of you know anything about what was in the envelope Cain gave him before he left? It won’t go beyond this room, and we’ll drop it if you all agree, but if Cain burned him and Ronald thinks it was on our behalf,” Annabel looked at each of them and paused, “he’ll try to bury each of us, and he’ll start with me. You might not love everything about me, but I’ll try to protect you all from any fallout.”
“The team talked about it, ma’am, and we’ve got no idea,” Joe said, and they all nodded. “We’re all aware of Casey’s largess, but this time she did something for her own reasons, and she hasn’t shared that with any of us.”
“I haven’t mentioned this before, but she called me,” Annabel said softly. “All she said was if I wanted my post back free and clear to be there that night, but that was the only clue she gave.”
“Cain always does things for a reason. This time it had to do with Ronald’s relationship with Brent and, to some extent, Fiona O’Brannigan,” Shelby said. “Brent, I understand, but Fiona’s still a mystery.”
“She didn’t mention it when you talked to her that night?” Annabel asked for the first time, but Shelby didn’t pick up on any accusations in the question.
“Cain isn’t always the monster we make her out to be, and that night all she wanted was to tell me she’d made a donation in my parents’ name. They were involved in a few children’s programs, and she contributed to each one.” That actually wasn’t all they’d talked about that night, but the donation part was true. Cain really had been incredibly generous.
“We know what to do about Casey, but what about Chapman?” Claire asked.
“If we all agree, we’ll go back to our jobs but investigate Ronald on our own time until we find the truth,” Annabel said, and they all nodded. “The truth, as they say, people, will not only set us free of this guy but also protect us from his inevitable retaliation.”
“You’ve got to understand how disruptive it is when she does that in the middle of class,” the older, pinched-looking woman said as she concluded her long list of Hannah’s sins.
Emma sat with Cain’s hand in her lap, a little surprised that her usually overprotective spouse had stayed quiet throughout the bitch’s detailed notes of what she saw as wrong with their child. If anything, she was about to punch the woman in the throat, but she blamed that on her own physical discomfort. She was more than willing to take her lower back pain out on this idiot.
“Was there a reason for Hannah to hug the little girl in the middle of your riveting lecture on world history, or whatever the hell you were teaching?” Cain asked. She sounded incredibly calm, but her question still made Emma snort.
Emma glanced at Cain and immediately saw through the façade. The muscles in Cain’s jaw were tight, and the hand Emma wasn’t holding had curled into a fist. She could tell that her occasionally volatile partner was about to erupt, so she was glad to see the principal hovering outside the door. Sometimes it was good to have a reputation.
“Does it matter?” the woman asked, taking off her large glasses. Emma guessed she wanted to better stare Cain down. “It’s not fair to the other sixteen children who were paying attention and trying to learn. Perhaps if she saw less of what I’m seeing now,” the woman pointed to their joined hands with what appeared to be disapproval, “things might change.”
Cain stood so abruptly that her little red plastic chair flew halfway across the room. The bigot’s expression of superiority drained from her face, replaced by obvious concern as she pushed her chair slightly backward, closer to the board. “The little girl’s name is Lucy,” Cain said, placing her fingers on the teacher’s desk and leaning in. “Lucy’s parents are splitting up and it’s not been pretty, so she’s spent some time in our home recently because she’s not coping well with her parents’ fighting and the general venom they’re spewing.”
“I didn’t know,” the woman said, leaning farther back, which made Emma smile. When Cain was like this, it was like confronting a rabid dog. Your instincts were to run, but you feared the sudden movement would result in your leg being chewed off. At least, that was the woman’s demeanor as she watched Cain.
“Shut up.” Cain moved even closer and the woman gasped. “You’ve had your chance to talk.”
“There’s no need to be rude, Miss Casey.”
“No, there’s no need for some closed-minded dinosaur in the classroom either, so I hope you’re prepared to defend your beliefs.”
“What do you mean?”
Cain laughed, and Emma came close to joining her. The pain Cain inflicted at times when she deemed it necessary had nothing to do with guns or fists. “It means that I’m going to make you wish someone would take the time to hug you when the comfortable and secure life you know turns to dust.”
“Please, Miss Casey, your threats won’t work here,” the woman said. She laughed but nervously rubbed her hands together.
“Emma, are you about ready?” Cain held her hand out, but her attention was on the door. “You’ll be hearing from my attorney, and I’ll need a cashier’s check by five today for the entirety of my family’s donations—all of them.” The principal gripped the door at that threat. This time Emma couldn’t hold back her laugh. She doubted the school had that much cash on hand, since the Caseys had been giving to the school from the time Cain had been in kindergarten.
Levi Layke, the principal, took a deep breath. “Cain, could I speak to you before you go?” he asked. His voice had a nervous quiver as if he knew Cain was talking to him about the money.
“I’ve wasted enough time here today, so get going. The bank will need you to take a couple of board members with you. Don’t disappoint me.” Cain helped Emma to her feet and put her arm around her waist. “Where’s our kid?”
“In the gym,” Levi said.
“What’s our plan, mobster?” Emma asked as Levi trailed behind them, but not close enough to overhear them.
“Give it a minute, lass. The Catholics love the collection plate almost as much as the Lord, or so Da used to say. Levi either has to write a check or retire that bitch.”
“You really think he’ll do that?” They stopped at the door to the gym and glanced inside. Hannah was playing with her friend Lucy, some distance away from the other children. Hannah had been glad to share with them how the other children treated Lucy because of how much she cried. Though people often considered Cain a bully, she’d told Hannah that everyone deserved a friend. Emma was glad Hannah had taken Cain’s words to heart.
“Levi knows me, and more importantly, he knows when I’m not bluffing.” Cain placed her hand on the door frame and kept her gaze on Hannah. “Your mother has already put Hannah through enough. I won’t allow it to happen again, especially by someone who can’t see the value of our family.”
“We’ve talked about this already. You never have to apologize for something that wasn’t your fault. That doesn’t need to be rehashed, and the one person I do blame for that has been buried.” Cain moved to her and placed her hand on the side of her neck. “Nothing or no one can bring him back or come between us again.”
“Why are we talking about this?” she asked and finally realized something about herself. No matter how far she’d come and all she had—she was still waiting for the other shoe to drop. “And don’t pretend that you don’t think about that sometimes. You know damn well I’m mostly to blame.”
“Forgive me, lass. I didn’t do a very good job of explaining myself, but we’ve both done our penance over this. I meant to say that I want us to raise Hannah and our new baby the same way we’ve raised Hayden. I want her to know nothing but love and give her the confidence to know she can do anything. If taking people out of the way that don’t have that in mind makes me a meddling parent, I’m okay with that.”
Emma leaned against her taller and much stronger spouse and nodded. “I’m sorry to be so whiny, and I agree. The kids and I are lucky to have you.”
The loud squeal that only a five-year-old could produce made them both laugh. Hannah had spotted them and was making her way across the gym with her friend in tow. “Mama,” she yelled, finally releasing Lucy’s hand. “Mom,” she said next, leaping up when she got close to Cain, who bent and caught her. Cain was so wrong saying that Hannah didn’t have a sense of herself.
“Hey, Hannah girl,” Cain said, holding Hannah so she could kiss Emma. “You ready to go?”
“Can Lucy come?” Hannah asked, her hands framing Cain’s face.
“Not right now, but we can call her mom later.” Cain seated Hannah on her right side and took Emma’s hand. “Are you going to be okay, Lucy?”
“Yes, ma’am.” The small waif of a girl’s glance back at the gym full of children broke Emma’s heart. Lucy’s unhappiness radiated from her like a lantern in a dark room.
“Cain,” she said, not having the heart to leave her.
Levi hovered close by, and Emma could swear he appeared more pale and miserable than Lucy when Cain turned to him. “I’ll expect you not to disappoint me,” Cain said.
“Emma, come on, see reason,” Levi said, his hands out, obviously hoping to appeal to the gentler parent.
“When it comes to the kids, you should know by now she’s seldom reasonable about situations like this, and I don’t want her to be. Kids shouldn’t be made to feel bad about themselves, and I don’t want someone who knows nothing about us making my kid think she has something to be ashamed of.” She slipped her hand around Cain’s arm. Her back hurt and she was ready to go.
“I’ll have it by this afternoon,” Levi said softly.
“Don’t look so glum, Levi,’ Cain said and laughed. “Think of this as learning the lesson I’m sure they teach here. The Lord giveth and taketh away. Now go call Lucy’s mother and ask if she’d like us to take her home a little early today.”
Emma laughed when Cain grimaced as Hannah squealed again, only this time much closer to Cain’s ear.
Fiona O’Brannigan watched as Cain and her family descended the steps of the exclusive Catholic school in uptown New Orleans. The trio of Caseys and some other kid were surrounded by people Fiona was sure were heavily armed.
“That’s gotta suck,” she said above a whisper as she noticed how Cain scanned the area as if searching for a conceivable threat. She stopped when she spotted Fiona’s car.
It was eerie how she seemed to know exactly where all her watchers were, but Cain did seem surprised when she spotted her. Fiona guessed the FBI van was part of the landscape Cain was used to, but not Fiona’s car. She indulged her curiosity only when she wasn’t on duty.
She thought about starting the engine and leaving, but that might signal fear. So she watched Cain put her partner and the children in the car and cross the street, headed directly for her. She’d have to hit Cain with her vehicle to leave now. She exhaled and thought about the consequences. One more harassment complaint from Cain to Fiona’s superiors and her mother might get her wish of her coming home when the head of detectives cut her from the force.
“Get out of the car and keep your hands visible,” Cain said as she stood on the sidewalk.
It irritated her how cool and sophisticated looking this butcher was. All the illegal money Cain raked in went toward putting forth this image of someone who was always in control, and the expensive suit only extenuated that fake façade.
“Shouldn’t I be making that request?” she said, trying to ignore her indigestion caused by actually following Cain’s order.
“Detective O’Brannigan, why are you still here?” Cain walked in the opposite direction of the FBI van and spoke softly. Was she stupid enough to think Shelby and her team didn’t have equipment to hear her from space if they wanted to? “You do realize this isn’t going to turn out well for you, right?”
“Your trying to threaten me is a joke. The scar on your chest should be a constant reminder that the law has some cushion when it comes to people like you.”
Cain turned around and seemed to stare at the van as she nodded before continuing their walk away from it. “When you’re in the bar business you learn a few things, Detective, and one of the things at the top of the list is persuasive conversations.” Cain laughed and stopped again. “If you didn’t understand that—it means that when it’s your turn, you’ll know it’s your turn.”
“Listen, asshole, you’re a joke whose time is up, and if you didn’t understand that—it means I’m the one who’s going to kick you in the ass. Once that happens I’m going to come by and laugh my head off because I’ll know exactly where you are.”
“See you soon,” Cain said and laughed when Fiona’s phone rang, but Fiona ignored it. “Make sure you wear your ass-kicking shoes, but if you want my advice, you might want to invest in a more sensible pair. Give my best to your boss.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” she asked and screamed the question again when Cain walked across the street and joined her family. She went back to her car and kicked the back tire a few times to bleed out the frustration. That Cain could bait her so easily pissed her off.
Her phone rang again, and she kicked her tire once more when she saw the readout. “Yes, sir. I can come in this afternoon.” Sept Savoie’s father, Sebastian, was the chief of detectives, and you didn’t turn down an invitation from him. “Fuck, what now?”
She made it downtown quickly since the streets were nowhere near their pre-Katrina traffic. In actuality, the crime in the city had declined dramatically after the storm, but it had nothing at all to do with better policing. The city’s mass evacuations had also swept away a lot of its criminals, so places like Houston and Atlanta were enjoying the company of those New Orleans could do without.
Fiona had hoped to be partnered with Sept, but she and some newbie Sebastian had set her up with were working a murder that had happened on the hallowed grounds of the best restaurant in the city. That a rookie had gotten that assignment had chapped a bit, but she still had to prove herself so she kept her mouth shut.
“Where the hell were you this morning?” Sebastian asked before she even made it into his office.
The question and tone meant Cain Casey had complained and Fiona would end up farther down the chain of command. She was curious about Cain, but that didn’t mean she didn’t hate her as well.
Remi Jatibon stood on the balcony of her condo by the river and watched the boat traffic. The extensive flooding throughout the city had spared the new house she and Dallas Montgomery were remodeling, but her movie company’s offices hadn’t gotten off that easily. For now they were sharing what had quickly become a cramped space with Cain on the docks, so she missed the building where her entire staff had room to work.
“Hey, baby,” Dallas said as soon as Remi answered. The sequel to Dallas’s first movie had moved to South Carolina for a few months when the fucking storm had destroyed their locations around New Orleans. “It’s too early for a cigar so I’d better not hear any puffing.”
“I’m not smoking,” she said, going back inside. “I’m enjoying the view to take my mind off the fact that our bed has become a lonely place.”
“I know exactly what you mean, so don’t remind me. You need to get up here and put me in a better mood before I’m accused of being hard to work with.”
“Hang in there until the weekend.” She sat in the study and put her feet on her desk. “Mano and I are still working on new offices since it’ll be months before we’re back in the building, if at all. That much flooding is hard to recover from.”
“Don’t say no just yet—you love that place.”
“I do love it, so we’ll see. If anything, we’ll end up with more real estate. But I’d rather talk about how you’re doing.”
Dallas laughed, and the sound made Remi smile. “Oh, honey, you’d lose that rep of yours if people heard you now.”
“Are you kidding? I listen to all these people on set talking about how hot you are and how much they want you. It made me mad before, but now I know you’re mine and I’ve got lifetime rights.”
“That you do, querida.” The conversation she’d had with her parents and Cain about Dallas came to mind. Dallas, she figured, knew how much she loved her, but Cain had been clear. Sometimes a girl you wanted to build a life with needed more than flowers and pretty words. The purchase of the old Casey house had been her first step in that plan. “Aside from the crew talking about me, are they treating you okay?”
“Any better and it’d be nauseating. Don’t worry. I’m being well taken care of, but I’d rather it be you here coddling me. You can come, right?”
The picture on her desk of the two of them at her parents’ place made her truly miss Dallas like no other woman who’d ever been part of her life. “How about I come, pick you up, and bring you home for a couple of days?”
“I’d love that, but according to the director, the weekend is
going to be full of early morning shoots. My afternoons and nights will be free.”
“We’ll work something out then. Don’t worry.” If the director hadn’t mentioned the change in plans, she wouldn’t ruin his surprise. A man yelling on Dallas’s end meant her sweet talk for the day would be cut short. “Remember to have fun and that I miss you.”
“I love you,” Dallas said, her voice as smooth and silky as a fifty-year-old añeho rum.
“I love you too, querida. Take care and I’ll see you soon.”
The line disconnected, and she swore the pain in her chest must be from some medical ailment. “Good Lord, I’m getting soft,” she said and laughed.
Juno Jimenez, Remi’s assistant, chuckled along with her from the door and shook her head. “You’re exactly like Simon,” Juno said about her partner and Remi’s bodyguard. “Love makes you strong, mi vida, not soft. You need to learn to scream how you feel from that balcony you love so much.”
“Don’t worry. I’m not running, and Simon’s not a screamer, but she gets her feelings about you front and center all the time.” Remi spoke in Spanish since Juno enjoyed using their native language. “She’s a hopeless romantic.”
“Isn’t it nice to indulge that trait when things are this quiet?”
Juno’s shoulders hitched up when the words slipped out, and Remi shook her head. “You’ve jinxed us for sure now.”
“No. I like Simon home like she’s been. That’s the only good that came from that damn storm.”
Their clubs had been shut down for a couple of months for remodeling, repair, and security updates. The studio was for the most part being run from the California office, so their partnership with Cain was the only thing still on course. They’d been enjoying the distracted police department and had taken the opportunity to stockpile inventory. Once things in the city normalized, they’d be set.
“We need to call Cain,” Simon said, walking in and going to Juno’s side.
“What were you saying about not jinxing us?” she asked and smiled.
One of the guys put music on for Hannah and Lucy once they arrived at their club Cain had named after Emma. The crowds had thinned since Katrina had devastated the city, but Cain had ordered the place open every night, and everyone who’d wanted a break from renovations was appreciative.
Upstairs, though, was why they were here. The offices of Muriel Casey, Cain’s cousin, were there. The adoption papers for baby number three were ready, and Emma wanted them filed. Cain didn’t like how much Emma worried about every little thing, but this was easy enough to get out of the way.
“We’ll file as soon as the baby’s born, and since we’ve done this twice before, we shouldn’t have any problems,” Muriel said as they signed what seemed to Cain like a hundred sheets of paper. “You have time for something else?” Muriel asked when they’d finished.
“Sure. Then I’ll take everyone to lunch.” Cain cocked her head to the side slightly and winked at her. “Lass, do you want to go down with the kids or stay here? Might be Muriel’s getting ready to bore me.”
“I never find Muriel boring, and innocent questions like that seldom are, so spill it, Muriel,” Emma said.
“I just got a call from Bubba.”
“The idiot brother of T-Boy’s, you mean?” Cain shook her head at the thought of those two. They couldn’t keep a steady job to save their lives but had a streak of luck as long and wide as the Mississippi for finding information she really needed.
“The one and only. He’s working the bar at the Hilton and spotted someone he thought you’d want to know about,” Muriel said, glancing down at the pad where she’d obviously written the gist of the conversation down.
“Don’t keep me in suspense, cousin.”
“He was waiting tables last night, and he swears that Nunzio Luca was in there, talking business with the pretty blonde that was always with him.” Katlin came in with a glass of juice for Emma and stayed when Cain pointed to a seat.
“The pretty blonde Kim Stegal, Nunzio’s right-hand woman, who I watched get her throat slit?” She flattened her hand on the table and exhaled. Nunzio was a cockroach she’d thought she’d sent scurrying into the night. “Remind me from now on that permanent solutions to problems will make conversations like this moot,” she said, looking at Katlin.
“Bubba swears it was the two of them, and they were talking to some guy Bubba thinks is moving product through that place. He doesn’t have proof, but the bar owner’s too flush in cash for it all to be from booze.”
“You never know, cousin. Booze is a lucrative business, I’ve been told,” Cain said, and they all laughed. “Our problem here is that Bubba is thinking, so, Katlin, send someone you trust over there and tell them to have a few drinks on us. If Nunzio has grown a pair and come back with a ghost in tow, we need to keep an eye on them.”
“How about you let us handle things so you’re free to take Emma to the hospital when it’s time,” Katlin said. She glanced over at Lou, Cain’s ever-present bodyguard who stood by the door, and the big man nodded. “Lou and I’ll check it out and keep you in the loop.”
“I’m pretty good at multitasking, so don’t forget about the loop,” she said, glancing back at Muriel. “Anything else?”
“The added shipments are working, and so far, we’ve tripled our inventory. Nothing like hiding in plain sight.”
All the supplies FEMA was sending and the massive amounts of building materials being brought in made it easier to blend in a few extra trucks. Once the city righted itself, they’d be ready to roll into the new territory they were making now.
“Good,” she said, and knocked on the conference table with her knuckles. “Thanks for taking on extra stuff, but we’re still not naming the baby after any of you.”
“Cain,” Emma said, slapping her arm. “Everyone’s getting an extra dessert for that comment.”
Cain nodded as she stood, but she locked her gaze on Katlin. If anyone among her family or on her payroll understood threats like Nunzio, it was Katlin. Her cousin had fallen in love with Emma’s bodyguard Merrick, who was still fighting every day to get back to where she’d been physically before Juan Luis shot her in the head.
“Listen to your wife, cousin, and you don’t have to worry,” Katlin said, as if reading her mind. “We don’t want to mess up our Christmas bonuses, so I’m not likely to miss anything.”
“I’ll double yours if you get me everything on my wish list.” Cain had figured Nunzio wouldn’t appear on her radar again, but she’d deal with him permanently if need be. She currently had her sights set on finding Anthony Curtis. The wayward FBI agent was in the wind, but he had no idea how persistent she was. When, not if, she found him, he would learn for himself exactly who she was and what she was capable of.
The phone rang and Muriel answered. Her conversation was brief. “Remi’s downstairs,” she said when she hung up.
“Good news travels fast,” Cain said. If she was right, she’d have to talk Remi out of killing him outright. She wouldn’t try too hard, though, if that’s what Remi really wanted to do. After all, Nunzio had hired someone to kill Remi to make her father Ramon more agreeable to the casino deal they’d all been involved in. It was hard to forgive a shot to the chest with a high-powered rifle.
“Let’s go to lunch,” Emma said, holding her hand out. “Maybe a plate of good food will calm everyone down.”
“Perhaps, lass,” Cain said taking her hand, “but I doubt there’s anything that good open in the city.”
Nunzio Luca looked out over the water in back of his father’s old house. He’d inherited it when Junior died from a bullet to the head and his mother had decided to join his grandfather Santino, who’d retired to Florida. It’d taken him a few days to find someone with the background he needed, but the treasure trove he’d discovered in New Orleans would finally be of use to him.
He and his late mistress’s sister, Tracy Stegal, had gone to New Orleans right after Katrina to beg first Emray Gillis, then Hector Delarosa for scraps to get back in the game, but things had changed once Tracy had disappeared. That betrayal he’d deal with once he found Tracy, but it was good to find out what a bitch she was before she really became an integral part of his team.
“Do you have everything in place?” Santino asked from behind him.
All the mistakes and bad luck were about to become a thing of their past. He was tired of being the screw-up and was ready for his grandfather to be proud of him. It was too late to accomplish that with his father, but Junior’s death wasn’t on his head.
“The meetings are set,” he said. He kept his attention on the water, wanting to memorize the view. His first stop was Mexico, and depending on how that went, it was hard to know when he’d be here again. His last trip to New Orleans had lost him Tracy, but he had found something much more important.
The original supplier he was set to do business with was Emray Gillis. That asshole had never materialized so he’d wasted time with Emray’s flunkies Mitch Surpass and Freddie Buhle. Mitch the ass-wipe had ended up decorating the dash of a car with his brains, but Freddie now worked for him. Freddie was responsible for the resurrection of their business and gave him the means for his revenge.
“Are you sure you want to bring Buhle with you?” Santino stood next to him and put his hand on his shoulder. His grandfather had come out of his self-imposed retirement to help him with all this. “I’m glad you found him, but he’s not the brightest light I’ve ever met.”
“Don’t you mean I’m not the brightest light in the family?” His father’s always condescending voice rang through his head. Even from the grave Nunzio could feel his disapproval just as easily as he could the sweat on his skin. “You can be honest about what you and Papa thought about me.”
“Nunzio,” Santino said as he stood in front of him. “You need to bury all that bad blood along with your father. Junior was my creation, and I loved him because he was my son, but Junior was also my mistake.”
“What’s that mean?” He was tired of lies and redefining their history when it was convenient.
“Junior was an asshole who seldom considered anyone but himself. He thought it’s what made him a man, but it cost him the love and loyalty of his son. I don’t want to repeat that mistake.” Santino put his hands on the sides of his face. “No matter where you go or what you need, I’ll be there for you.”
The expression on Santino’s face was soft and almost loving, two things not often seen on the face of any Luca male. He wanted to believe him, but like a dog whipped one time too many, he was skittish and simply nodded.
“My boy,” Santino said. “You’re all I’ve got left to carry on my father’s name and take over our business. I admire you admitting to being unsure, but I’m proud of you and I’ll prove it to you.”
“How?” he asked, not breaking away from Santino. The last time a man had held him like this and spoken so sweetly he was five and Junior was in a sentimental mood.
“By always standing behind you no matter how many times you turn around.”
“Good. I might need someone to watch my back.”