Chapter One

Clayton stood in the shadows, panting. A mixture of adrenaline and triumph made his pulse race. He looked down at his gloves, sticky and discolored with blood. This was his first.

The woman had seen his face, had seen him at work. He couldn’t risk letting her live. The decision to kill her was split-second. The blade, in his hand to cut a canvas, slid across her throat so easily. Like slicing a pear. Other than the brief gurgle of blood in her windpipe, she hadn’t even made a sound.

He surveyed the body beneath him. He’d had to do it. His very survival depended on it. He knew now, though, that it wouldn’t be his last.

He stayed longer than he should have, looking at her face, her body. Something in her unseeing stare enthralled him. The unnatural angle of her limbs invited his caress.

He removed one of the gloves and touched her, timidly at first, as though she might wake. He was careful to use the back of his hand so as to not leave fingerprints. Clayton didn’t know the science behind it, but he would have sworn her skin already felt cooler, waxy almost.

He traced his knuckles over her face, her hair. Feeling bolder, and more aroused, he moved his hand down to her breast. He squeezed it through her clothing, pinching her nipple.

Clayton lost track of how long he crouched there, but he’d given himself quite a hard-on. He needed to get away, before anyone found him and before his desire made him do something stupid.

He gathered the painting that had been the reason he came here in the first place. The thrill he’d felt when he’d first seen it, held it, was gone. In its place was a feeling far more powerful. He tried to ignore the sudden hollowness that filled his chest. He’d worry about that later. Right now, he needed to get out cleanly and before anyone stumbled across him.

Clayton rolled up the painting, sliding it into the cardboard tube he’d brought with him and into his bag. He indulged in one final look at his victim, imagining what it would be like to slide his bare fingers over her lifeless flesh. He adjusted himself, trying to ease the pressure of his erection straining against his trousers. Once he was clear of the building and safely back in his apartment, he’d be able to jerk off, all the while imagining his cock sliding into her.

 

Sam leaned back in the plush club chair and smiled. She wondered, sometimes, whether it was healthy to take such delight in murder, especially when the violence was laced with perversion. She imagined some would wonder whether such depravity could spring from an entirely healthy mind.

She shrugged and the concern passed. A little late to worry about that now. She popped the last bite of bagel into her mouth, finished her coffee.

She checked her watch. Boarding should be starting in just a few minutes. She lingered in the first-class lounge, in part to skim the few chapters she’d written thus far and in part to avoid the awkwardness she always felt sitting in her nice, wide leather seat while dozens of people streamed by to the coach section. Maybe it had something to do with her upbringing—traditional, Cuban, Catholic—but as much as she appreciated the luxury of flying first class, she hated the smugness that seemed inherent in it.

Shaking her head, she turned her attention back to the computer screen. It was good to remember one’s roots, especially in her line of work. It made her characters more interesting, both in background and motivations. Clayton Gentille would be no different.

She was happy with what she’d sketched out so far in terms of character and plot. She’d had the idea for the story long before she’d chosen New Orleans as the setting. Now that things had taken a more sinister turn, she knew that choosing the Big Easy, complete with its dark history and tradition of black magic, would be the ultimate backdrop for her darkest mystery to date.

Once Sam was in New Orleans—living in it, absorbing it—the rest of the story would start to flow. She’d research the city’s art scene, its history and culture, but she’d also find a way to work in some of its more sordid underbelly. She planned to enjoy its culinary delights, and maybe a little of its famous hospitality as well. After all, what good was moving to a new city every six months if it didn’t include all the local charm?

Sam glanced at her watch again, then up at the monitor on the wall. Time to go.


Chapter Two

Since her car and most of her things wouldn’t be delivered for a couple of days, Sam took a cab to the house she’d be renting—a fully furnished Greek revival in the Garden District. She’d expected to stop by the rental agency to pick up her keys, but was assured someone would happily meet her at the house. By the time she pulled up, a woman stood at the front gate waiting for her.

The property agent looked exactly how Sam would imagine a woman born to sell. She owned her surroundings and drew attention in a way that was compelling without being obnoxious. Her blond hair fell halfway down her back, perfectly straight; her emerald green dress was perfectly tailored, short enough to draw attention, but not so short you’d question her professionalism. Sam appreciated the way her long silver necklace drew attention to the hint of cleavage that, again, was more hint than promise.

“You must be Samara Torres. I’m Kelly. I am so pleased to meet you.”

“Please, call me Sam. I can assure you, the pleasure is all mine. Thank you for meeting me here.”

“We try to take care of all of our clients as best we can.”

Kelly’s coy smile made Sam nod in appreciation. “It’s good to know I’m in such capable hands.”

Kelly walked down the gravel path and up the steps of the front porch. She slid a key into the lock, pushed the door open, then stepped back so Sam could enter first.

The ceilings were the first thing Sam noticed. Twelve if not fifteen feet, they created a sense of airiness throughout the house. What was it about high ceilings in old houses? They seemed practical in a way that newer buildings couldn’t mimic. Sam would need to find a way to work that into the story. She realized that Kelly was speaking again and pulled herself back to the conversation.

“It’s a charming property, has all the character of a historic home but all of the modern conveniences built in. Central heat and air—you’ll probably need both while you’re here—and a gas fireplace. There’s a sound system throughout the house, with control panels in the kitchen, living room, and master bedroom. And, of course, high speed internet and premium cable with DVR are included.”

They walked through the spacious foyer to the living room. The decor was a bit over-the-top for Sam’s tastes, but the space itself was gorgeous. “It’s perfect.”

“There’s an office on the first floor and a formal dining room that seats twelve should you want to entertain while you’re here.” Kelly gestured toward the rooms to her left. “The real star, though, is the kitchen. Fully remodeled only a couple of years ago with professional-grade appliances.”

Sam wasn’t about to tell her she only cooked in states of emergency. Even then, it rarely went beyond boiling water for pasta. Or eggs. Sam knew her way around eggs. “Mmm-hmm.”

“Three bedrooms upstairs with two full baths. There’s also a powder room next to the office. Any questions?”

“No, I think you’ve covered it.”

“Excellent. It looks like the rent is set up on a direct pay, so unless there’s a maintenance issue, we’ll stay out of your hair.”

“Great. Thank you.”

Kelly tipped her head slightly to the side and smiled. “Of course, if there is anything at all you need, you shouldn’t hesitate to ask.”

Sam got the clear message Kelly wasn’t talking about her services as a rental agent. Unless, perhaps, those services included showing off some of the more interesting things that could be done in beautiful rooms with tall ceilings. Sam returned the smile. “That is a very generous offer. I may have to take you up on it.”

“I hope you do.” Kelly walked up to Sam, a little closer than necessary, and handed her a card. “The number on the back is my personal cell.”

Sam accepted the card. “I’ll be sure to keep it handy.”

“Good. I have an appointment across town, so I’ll leave you to settle in. Welcome to NOLA.”

Sam walked Kelly to the door, then watched her walk—sashay really—to her car. The view of the back was almost as nice as the one from the front. She closed the door reluctantly.

Sam wandered the house. Perhaps it was a bit more space than she needed, but she liked to be comfortable. She was admiring the six-burner gas stove when her phone rang. Seeing who was on the other end made Sam smile. “Hello, darling.”

Prita didn’t bother returning the endearment. “I take it you’ve arrived?”

“I have and I think you may have outdone yourself this time.” Prita, who dabbled in real estate as a hobby, had taken on hunting up Sam’s digs each time she ventured to a new city.

“Really? I love when that happens. Do tell.”

“The place is gorgeous—old New Orleans charm, but with all the creature comfort upgrades. The kitchen might even inspire me to cook.”

“Okay, let’s not get carried away.”

Sam chuckled. “I mean it. It really is perfect. And the rental agent who met me to give me the keys was nice, too.”

“And by nice, do you mean pretty?” Prita and Sam had been friends since college. After one date and some painfully awkward kissing, they decided to be best friends instead of girlfriends. She knew Sam better than anyone.

“She was nice and pretty. I think I might develop a thing for Southern hospitality.”

“I’m sure you’ll find all sorts of ways to take advantage of it, but let’s not forget why you’re there.”

Sam shook her head. The problem with having a best friend who is also your agent is that they’re always trying to keep you on task. “I seek inspiration in all forms.”

Prita laughed. “Don’t I know it. So, that form of inspiration aside, where are you going to start?”

“First order of business will be to find sustenance.”

“Right, because it’s probably been three hours since you’ve last eaten.”

“Four and a half, and that was only coffee and a bagel.”

“Mmm-hmm. Then what?”

“Probably just driving around, trying to get a feel for things. I’ll head over to Tulane in the morning. My appointment with Professor Chastain isn’t until next week, but I can wander around campus, check out the art buildings and the library.”

“And the coeds.”

“Hey, now. I gave that up once I hit thirty. It started feeling creepy.”

Prita snickered. “Fair enough. Maybe you’ll stumble across a sexy librarian.”

“You laugh, but maybe I will.”

“I laugh precisely because you will.”

“I can’t decide if I should take that as a compliment or an insult.”

“Merely an observation. Don’t forget you have to get page proofs for The Ninth Informant done by next week.”

Sam scowled even though Prita couldn’t see it. While she understood the importance of page proofs, and certainly wouldn’t let a book go to print without that final knowledge everything was just so, proofs were a pain in the ass. “Yes, boss.”

“Eat something delicious for me and call soon.”

“Will do.”

 

v

 

Based on her Google search, there was a restaurant and oyster bar only about four blocks from her new place. Hopefully, it was good. Even in a place like New Orleans, she liked the idea of having a regular place. Since she didn’t cook, it was the closest thing she got to homey.

She threw on a jacket and headed out, making sure her Moleskine was tucked in her pocket. Despite the fact that it was January, the temperature hovered in the low fifties. It was nice, if a little unnatural. Sam may have lived in more than a dozen cities over the last ten years, but Philly remained her frame of reference.

She walked the short distance to St. Charles Avenue and turned right. When a streetcar rattled by, carrying more people heading home from work than tourists, she couldn’t help but smile. As promised, Superior Seafood and Oyster Bar sat on the corner of St. Charles and Loyola. The red neon sign, along with the building’s curved lines and chrome accents, gave it an art deco feel.

The inside was spacious, but with booths and partial walls that made it cozy. Dark wood and warm lighting reinforced the ambience. A girl—tall, but probably still in her teens—stood at the hostess station.

Sam smiled. “Hi.”

“Good afternoon and welcome to Superior Seafood. Can I get you a table or would you prefer the bar?”

“Can I get oysters at the bar?”

The girl grinned. “You certainly can. You can also sit at the oyster bar in the back. Take your pick.”

Sam walked into the bar area. Mirror-backed shelves stretched to the ceiling and boasted an impressive inventory of liquors and cordials. Heavy stools and brass trim created a vibe that was old school without being stuffy. She was in heaven.

The main bar lined the entire side wall, while the oyster bar was about a third of the size and situated in the back near the kitchen. Several groups sat and stood, chatting with each other and the bartender. There were two men, one older and one younger, behind the bar. The oyster bar, on the other hand, was staffed by a woman.

Sam headed in her direction.

Only one other couple sat on the dozen or so stools, so Sam took a seat at the other end. The woman behind the bar, who’d been facing away from her, turned and smiled. “Good afternoon.”

Sam felt a quick surge of desire. Not uncommon, but the intensity of it caught her off guard. “Hi.”

“What can I get for you today?”

“Ah, I think I’m in the market for some oysters.”

The woman flashed a smile that made her even more stunning. “Well, you came to the right place. A dozen?”

Sam nodded. “That would be great.”

“Would you like a drink as well? Or a drink menu?”

Sam set her elbows on the bar, crossed her arms, and leaned forward. “What would you recommend?”

“A Bloody Mary if it’s brunch time, but in the afternoon, a French 75.”

Sam wasn’t familiar. “What’s that?”

“Gin, champagne, and lemon juice.”

Sam couldn’t think of a better pairing. “Sold.”

“Coming right up.”

The woman gestured to a passing waiter and Sam took the opportunity to study her. She was petite; Sam would guess five-two at most. Her hair was sandy blond and cut pixie short. She had a heart-shaped face and high cheekbones, which only added to the overall pixie look. As did the whimsical, handmade earrings. Sam noticed the name Tess embroidered on the white chef coat she wore under a long black apron.

With the drink order in, Tess got to work on the oysters. Sam had the perfect seat to watch her work. After scooping some crushed ice onto a metal platter, she picked up her knife—a stubby little thing with a black handle that looked to be plastic. The blade was rounded and not more than five or so inches in length. Sam thought about the chefs who traveled with their own knives, sets worth thousands of dollars tucked into special cases and treated with reverence and respect. This was not one of those knives.

But to watch Tess wield it, you’d think it was an object of beauty and precision. With practiced movements and an easy rhythm, she slid the blade into the seam of the shell, right at the thickest part. After wedging it in, she made a practiced flick of her wrist, prying the two halves apart. She discarded the top shell, sliding the blade around the full circumference of the meat and flipping it over so it was smooth and plump and succulent. Before setting the shell into the ice, she lifted it toward her face. It looked like she was studying it, but Sam realized she was smelling each one for freshness.

Despite her diminutive size, she worked quickly and efficiently. In what had to be less than two minutes, she’d made a ring around the outside of the platter. Small metal cups of horseradish and cocktail sauce went in the middle, along with slices of lemon.

“Enjoy.” She set the platter in front of Sam and started the process again.

As she ate, Sam realized that every ticket that came out of the small printer on the back counter was for an order. As Tess filled each tray, she slid them through an opening into the kitchen. Moments later, a waiter or waitress would emerge, carrying the tray to one of the tables in the dining room. Sam was mesmerized. “So how many of these would you say you do in a night?”

Tess thought for a moment, offered a slight shrug. “Probably about two thousand?”

It seemed like a huge number to Sam, but eaten by the dozen, she could see how they added up quickly. Partly out of curiosity and partly to keep her talking, Sam asked, “How long have you been doing it?”

“I learned as a kid, did it with my dad at all our family parties. When I started here, it was as a bartender. I filled in doing oysters one night when they were short staffed. Turns out I was faster than the regular guy. And having a female shucker is a bit of a novelty. The tourists really liked it.”

Sam imagined plenty of people would come in as much for her as they did for the oysters. “So you got reassigned.”

Another shrug. This time it was accompanied by a smile. “I make more in tips here than I did at the bar.”

That didn’t surprise Sam in the least. She’d known Tess all of five minutes and she was enchanted. She wondered what she could do to spend more time with her, short of eating two dozen oysters every day. Sam loved oysters as much as the next person, but she had her limits. “Are you here every day?”

“More days than not.”

“And always here, at the oyster bar.”

“Pretty much.”

Sam plucked the last of her oysters from the shell, popped it into her mouth. She wished she’d eaten them more slowly, and not just because they were delicious. She had no desire to leave. “I’m Sam, by the way.”

Tess smiled, but her brow arched slightly. “And I’m Tess.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Tess.”

“Can I get you another round? Or something else?”

Bingo. “I can order other food here?”

“Of course.” Tess reached under the counter, then handed Sam a menu. “Let me know what you’d like and I’ll put it in for you.”

Sam scanned the menu and Tess started to work on another order of oysters. The oysters had been surprisingly filling, so she decided to go with a couple of appetizers. She caught Tess’s eye. “I’ll have the crawfish cornbread and an order of fried green tomatoes.”

“You got it.”

This was perfect. Since she was now waiting for food, Sam could sit there and watch Tess work. It was easy to do. Tess’s hands were small, but efficient. And even though she wore the bulky apron and mesh gloves, there was something innately feminine in her movement.

“So, are you visiting from out of town?”

Sam was so busy watching that the question took her by surprise. “Sort of. I’m here for a few months for work.”

Tess glanced up and smiled without breaking her pace. “And what kind of work is that?”

Sam thought of the fictitious answers she sometimes gave to that question—professions she’d researched for one book or another. It wasn’t like she relished being dishonest, but it was often easier and helped keep her shell of anonymity. But whether it was the promise of getting to know her better or something else, Sam didn’t want to do that with Tess. “I’m a writer.”

“That sounds like fun. What kind?”

Sam couldn’t tell if she was curious, or if chatting up customers was part of her job. Given her comment about tips, Sam feared it might be the latter. But still. “A little of this, a little of that.”

Tess gave her a quizzical look. “Anything I would know?”

Sam chuckled. Even if people didn’t read Sid Packett’s books, most people had heard of him. Deciding to keep herself completely detached from her pen name meant she couldn’t use it to impress women. That was okay. She had plenty of other tactics.

“Nothing that glamorous, I’m afraid. I’m here to research a couple of art historians.” That wasn’t an untrue statement. Her next novel centered on an art history professor turned counterfeiter, a man who made millions using his expertise to fool black market collectors. A man who then became a serial killer.

“I don’t know about art historians, but the local art scene is great.”

Sam was about to ask her to elaborate when her food arrived. A couple sat down at the other end of the bar and Tess moved down to talk to them. Sam turned her attention to her food. She’d picked the dishes at random, but they both turned out to be delicious. It would be easy to eat here every day. She might gain twenty pounds in the process, but it might be worth it.

Tess didn’t come back until Sam was nearly done eating. “Did you save room for dessert?”

“I really wish I had. I guess that means I’ll have to come back.”

Tess smiled. “The bread pudding is worth it, I promise.”

Sam took the black billfold Tess handed her and slid in her credit card. She scribbled in a tip for the waitstaff, but was sure to stuff a ten into the snifter glass that served as a tip jar. “Then I promise I’ll be back, for the bread pudding and the company.”

“We’ll look forward to it.”

Sam reluctantly slid off the stool and put on her jacket. It shouldn’t irritate her that Tess said “we” instead of “I,” but it did. It was probably just habit. Either way, she planned to be back very soon. And while the bread pudding probably was spectacular, it would not be the reason why.


Chapter Three

It was just before eleven when Tess peeled off her apron and chef coat. She dumped them in the restaurant laundry and opened her locker. She grabbed her coat and gloves, slung her bag over her shoulder, and headed out the back exit. Her bike was locked to an old gas meter at the back of the building. She lined up the combination, then climbed on.

The ride from the restaurant to Canal Street was just under three miles and took her about twenty minutes. Despite the cold dampness in the air, she enjoyed it. The city was far from asleep and her route down Magazine Street offered an eclectic mix of sights, smells, and sounds. People walked dogs in their pajamas while others stood outside bars, smoking and laughing. Next to a taco truck, a man who looked to be in his eighties stood on the curb playing a trumpet. Just by passing through, Tess felt like a part of it. Considering she worked more nights than she went out, it was nice.

At the ferry station, a dozen or so people waited to board the boat that had docked only minutes before. She lined up behind them, walking her bike and flashing her pass as she embarked. She parked her bike and headed inside to warm up for a few minutes.

It didn’t take long for the boat to cast off and begin chugging across the muddy water. Not ten minutes later, they docked on the opposite side of the river. Tess collected her bike and started the brief final leg of her commute.

As she rode, she thought about the crepe myrtles that would soon be in bloom. It seemed wrong to wish for spring when summer followed so close on its tails, but she couldn’t resist. She longed for the vibrant colors and sweet fragrance of a whole city in bloom.

She pulled into her driveway and hopped off the bike, walking it through the narrow space between her car and the side of the porch. After locking it to the post of the old chain link fence, she headed up the side steps and let herself into the house.

At the sound of the door opening and closing, Marlowe came running—one of many habits that made him seem more like a dog than a cat. Before Tess could set down her keys and take off her coat, he rubbed up against her ankles, then set his two front paws on her knee.

“Did you miss me?” He meowed in reply. Tess scooped him up and nuzzled his nose. He purred. She set him down to pull off her coat and kick off her shoes. “I can never tell if you missed me or if you’re just hungry.”

Another meow. She opened a can of food and dumped it into a clean bowl. She’d given him canned food once when he was sick and had never been able to break the habit. She couldn’t begrudge him, though. She wouldn’t want to live on dry kibble either.

She walked from the kitchen to her bedroom, peeling off clothes as she went. She paused long enough to drop everything in the laundry basket, then continued to the bathroom. In the shower, she washed her hair, then lathered her entire body with orange blossom shower gel. High-end bath products were one of her favorite indulgences.

Clean and clad in a pair of fleece pants and a sweatshirt, she returned to the kitchen for something to eat. After surveying the contents of the fridge, she fixed a bowl of cereal. She took her combination dinner and late-night snack to the living room at the front of the house. She found an old black-and-white movie on television and curled up on the couch. Marlowe hopped up to join her.

She’d not seen this movie before, but the hero was the brooding, mysterious type. Absolutely the last kind of person she’d want to get involved with. Still, she could appreciate the appeal. Without warning, the image of Sam popped into her mind. She didn’t know why, except perhaps the fact that Sam exuded all those things—tall, dark, handsome. Tess rarely found herself attracted to customers, so Sam was definitely a standout on that front. She’d probably never see her again. Tess was okay with that. It didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the way Sam smiled at her, or the generous tip she’d left in Tess’s jar.

After finishing her cereal, she set the bowl of leftover milk on the coffee table for Marlowe. He lapped it up, then returned to curl up against her and purr his appreciation. It didn’t take long for Tess’s lids to grow heavy. She clicked off the TV and looked at the ball of orange fur asleep next to her.

“You’d think you were the one who put in a ten-hour day.” The cat opened one eye, then stretched. “I know, you’re too pretty to work.”

She stood and he stretched again. Tess shook her head, but chuckled. Marlowe slinked down from the couch as though he’d been waiting for her all along, then followed her to the bedroom.

 

v

 

Tess didn’t love the evening shift, but there was something to be said for never setting an alarm. She had never been a late sleeper, but she did enjoy waking up naturally and after the sun was up. She glanced over at the clock and saw it was just after seven. Since she wasn’t meeting Carly until nine, she had plenty of time to be leisurely.

She climbed out of bed and smiled at Marlowe, who didn’t even stir. After making coffee and putting on a load of laundry, she showered and dressed. She contemplated a bowl of cereal, but decided to indulge in a pastry at the market instead. She drank a couple of cups of coffee at the kitchen table before pouring what remained into a travel mug.

The sun was out and it was chilly without being cold, so Tess unlocked her bike instead of her car. The farmer’s market was only a fifteen-minute ride from her house. She arrived, happy to see a good-sized crowd. After parking her bike and grabbing her coffee, she headed to meet Carly at the honey stand. She’d not quite made it when she spotted Carly walking toward her. Tess waved to catch her attention. Carly grinned and returned the greeting.

They exchanged a brief hug and Carly said, “Good morning, lady. How goes it?”

“It goes, it goes. How about you?”

“Can’t complain.”

Tess smiled. “Hungry?”

“Always.”

Officially, Tess and Carly started every trip to the market at the honey stand. While the honey was awesome, it didn’t merit a weekly purchase. In truth, they met there because a local bakery had a booth directly across the aisle. They wandered over to peruse the selections.

Baguettes and boules and loaves of jalapeño cheddar bread sat artfully arranged in large baskets. Low, tray-like baskets lined the table, overflowing with muffins and scones, donuts and croissants. As far as Tess was concerned, the only downside was having to pick one thing. Carly got her usual chocolate chip muffin while Tess hemmed and hawed. In the end, she settled on an apple fritter.

Breakfast in hand, they meandered through the market. The pickings were a little slim in the winter, but a few of the local farms kept greenhouses going year-round. Tess picked up a big bunch of collard greens and a pint of cherry tomatoes.

“Are you working tonight?” Carly asked.

“Yes, but not the closing shift.”

“Nice. When’s the next gig?”

“I’ve got one Sunday in the Quarter, then Thursday at Old Point.”

“Maybe Becca and I will get a sitter next Thursday and come out. We haven’t been out in ages.”

“I would love that. And the nice thing about Thursday is you only have to get through Friday to get to the weekend.”

“Truth.”

“Are you still going to let me watch Dustin on Valentine’s Day?”

“If you’re sure you don’t have to work and you’re sure you won’t have something better to do.”

Tess smiled. “I can’t think of a better date.”

Carly shook her head. “It’s not that I don’t believe you. I just worry a little. I don’t want you to be lonely.”

They’d had this conversation at least a dozen times already. “I’m not lonely. I love my life, exactly the way it is. If someone comes along that fits nicely in it, great. If not, that’s okay, too.”

“Don’t you miss sex?”

Tess rolled her eyes. “I have sex.”

“Theresa Marie Arceneaux, you have occasional third-date sex. And by occasional, I mean like twice a year. That doesn’t count.”

Tess huffed and shook her head, but Carly’s words stung a little, mostly because they were a fairly accurate description of her sex life over the last couple of years.

“The thirties are a woman’s sexual prime. You don’t want to miss out on yours.”

“Okay, one, I don’t believe that’s true. Two, what do you expect me to do? Hop into bed with the next lesbian who tries to pick me up?” Without warning, Sam’s face popped into her mind. She hadn’t even tried to pick Tess up. She’d been flirtatious—not to mention gorgeous—but that was beside the point. Tess willed the image away.

“Maybe not the next one, but maybe every fifth or sixth. I know you’re not wanting for willing participants.”

Tess frowned. “That’s not fair. I work at a restaurant and sing in bars. A lot of people slip me their number.”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“Quantity does not equal quality.”

“I’m the first to agree with you. I just think you could be a little less picky without chucking your standards out the window. I don’t think it’s healthy when the lesbian couple with an infant is having more sex than you are.”

“Well, shit, when you put it that way.”

Carly nodded smugly. “Exactly.”

They finished the loop of the market. Carly picked up a bouquet of flowers for her wife and Tess indulged in some beeswax hand balm. Carly, who’d parked close by, walked her to the bike rack. Tess tucked her purchases into the basket on the front of her bike. “It’s lovely to see you, even when you make me feel bad about my sex life.”

“You know I’m not trying to make you feel bad.”

Tess smiled. Giving each other a hard time was part of being best friends. “I know. The only reason I feel bad is because you’re right.”

“Don’t feel bad then, do something about it.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Carly gave her a squeeze and headed to her car. Tess rode home and warmed up a slab of leftover lasagna for lunch before getting ready for work. She ate at her kitchen table, flipping through a magazine without much interest.

For the second time that day, she thought about Sam. Tess didn’t have a type necessarily, but if she did, Sam would be it. Tall without being gangly, dressed in dark pants and an oxford that blurred the line between masculine and feminine. She had bronzed skin and short dark hair; Tess wasn’t certain of her ethnicity, but guessed it was Hispanic. And her mouth—perfect teeth and a smile that exuded confidence.

Maybe Carly was right. She needed to get out more. Or perhaps more accurately, find someone to keep her in more.


Chapter Four

Sam woke to bright sunlight streaming through the window. She wanted to do some exploring and research in person before writing too much, but her most productive writing time was first thing in the morning. She decided to work on a few of the scenes already in her head, then venture out.

She put a pot of coffee on to brew, then headed to the office to set up a work station. She plugged in her computer, turned it on. Next to it went her thesaurus, writing journal, and her grandfather’s fountain pen. The same might not be true of her wardrobe, but when it came to work, she packed light.

After returning to the kitchen for a cup of coffee, Sam sat down and got to work. She’d already sketched out a few chapters that would be fleshed out with detail later. Even though it irritated her editor no end, Sam had never written stories in order. She wasn’t about to start now.

An hour later, Sam scowled at the screen. The pot of coffee was long gone and something felt off. She shook her head. It wouldn’t be the first time a plot had gone sideways, but she usually figured out pretty quickly how to get it back on track. Feeling stuck did not sit well.

She skimmed over the previous two chapters. Clayton, her art historian turned counterfeiter, had just committed his first murder. Calculated, clean. He’d needed to silence someone he feared might be on to him. The sexual overtones had been a departure for her and she couldn’t decide if the strategy was effective or a case of jumping the shark.

Maybe that was the problem. Maybe he shouldn’t be a villain. Or he shouldn’t be such an obvious one.

Sam turned away from the computer to the leather-bound journal where she kept notes and ideas. She flipped back to her initial character sketch of Clayton Gentille. Old-money Southern. PhD from Clemson. Chip on his shoulder. Misogynist. Manhood questioned in past. Killing is about power as much as money / secret. Sees himself as a gentleman defending his honor / prerogative to do whatever he wants?

Sam sighed, drummed her fingers on the desk. Clay was yet another variation on her bad guy archetype. Narcissistic and bold, undone eventually by ego-driven decisions and a belief they were too smart to be caught. She used it because it worked, but it didn’t seem to be working now.

What if Clay had been an aspiring artist? Whose parents told him he’d never be good enough? If Clay started counterfeiting not for money, but for validation of his talent, it would make him a much more sympathetic character. Not Sam’s usual type, but it might be interesting.

She reread the murder scene again. She’d have to scrap it altogether. Clay would be sloppy, driven by panic and then horrified with his actions, at least at first. She hated having to chuck entire chapters, but better to do it now than after the whole first draft was done. A lot of his internal monologue would have to change, too, and the scene where she’d alluded to some of his back story.

Should she keep the necrophilia? She wasn’t concerned by the taboo nature of it so much as she didn’t want to create a character with too many contradictions. Could a guy who murdered women and then found himself sexually aroused by them still be a sympathetic character? Sam sighed. She did like a challenge.

Instead of being irritated by the turn of events, Sam rubbed her hands together. After contemplating her options, she created a completely new project. Better to copy and paste in the good stuff instead of risk leaving something in that would contradict the new direction. She cracked her knuckles and started typing.

When Sam stopped long enough to glance at the clock in the bottom corner of her screen, she realized nearly five hours had passed. She leaned back in her chair, her smile of satisfaction morphing to a wince of pain. In not moving for so long, she’d given herself quite a crimp in her shoulders. She stretched her neck and pulled back her elbows, trying to work out some of the tightness. Before getting up, she did a quick check of her word count. If that didn’t earn her a nice late lunch, she didn’t know what did.

Part of the allure of New Orleans was the food. Theoretically, that meant exploring dozens of the city’s restaurants. She still planned to do that, but for the moment, she found herself drawn back to the alluring woman shucking oysters.

The oysters had been exceptional. And the rest of the menu didn’t look shabby either. Plus, it was walking distance, which meant she’d get a little fresh air and exercise. If she happened to be able to chat up the beautiful Tess again, well that would be icing on the cake. Or on the bread pudding. Or whatever one put on bread pudding. She intended to find out.

She grabbed her coat and headed out to take the same walk she had the day before. The sunshine and bright blue sky pulled her out of the dark head space her writing created. The promise of a delicious lunch helped, too, as did the thought of pleasant company.

By the time Sam arrived at the restaurant, her mood was ridiculously bright. The moment she walked in, her eyes went to the oyster bar in the back. Seeing Tess standing exactly where she’d been the day before made Sam smile. At the hostess’s greeting, Sam turned her attention.

“Hi. Can I just grab a seat at the oyster bar?”

The woman, older than the girl who’d been working the day before, smiled. “Of course.”

The woman gestured toward the back of the restaurant and Sam made her way to the same stool she’d claimed the day before. Unlike the day before, no one else sat at the marble counter. Tess had her head down, though, working on a platter of oysters. Sam took a seat and waited for her to look up. When she did, Sam thought she saw a flash of recognition. “Hi again.”

“Hi.”

Sam flashed her most winning smile. “The food and the company were so good yesterday, I couldn’t resist coming back.”

Humor danced in Tess’s green eyes. “Is that so?”

Sam lifted three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”

“Well, I love a repeat customer. Can I start you with some oysters?”

“I think you can.”

“And would you like a French 75 again, Sam?”

Sam didn’t know if it was Tess remembering her name or hearing her say it, but she felt a flicker of pleasure. “I think I might. That’s not bad form, is it? Having a cocktail at two in the afternoon?”

Tess laughed and it sent a shudder of warmth through her. “You do know where you are, right?”

“Of course. What was I thinking?”

Tess signaled to the bartender, then started working on Sam’s oysters. They were just as delicious as the ones the day before. She followed them up with a bowl of gumbo. Unfortunately, with no one else to serve, Tess disappeared into the kitchen. The gumbo was tasty enough to keep her from being entirely disappointed. That’s what Sam was trying to convince herself of when Tess pushed back through the swinging door with a smile.

“Did you save room for dessert this time?” Tess’s tone, and the twinkle in her eyes, were totally flirtatious.

Even if she hadn’t wanted dessert, Sam would have said yes to have a few more minutes with Tess. “I did.”

“Would you like to see the menu?”

“I have it on pretty good authority that the bread pudding is the way to go.”

“Coming right up.”

Tess disappeared again and Sam made a mental note to keep her talking when she came back. She didn’t have to wait very long. Tess returned with a huge square of bread pudding in a large, shallow bowl. It sat in a pool of creamy liquid that seemed too light to be caramel. “What’s the sauce?”

Tess looked up at the ceiling, as though recalling the recipe. “Whiskey, along with butter, brown sugar, and cream.”

It sounded even better than it looked. Sam scooped up a bite. It was a heart attack on a spoon and entirely worth it. “Whiskey sauce. That beats icing any day of the week.”

Tess gave her a quizzical look. “I’m sorry?”

“I had a very productive morning and I told myself coming here for lunch, and dessert, would be icing on the cake. This beats icing any day of the week.”

“Ah. I agree.” Tess nodded. “Cake and icing have nothing on bread pudding.”

“Of course, the company is a reward in itself.”

Tess raised a brow, but it seemed more amused than judgmental.

“I’d love to have dinner with you sometime.”

Tess smirked. “I appreciate the invitation, but I have to decline.”

Sam cringed slightly. Maybe she’d read the signals wrong. “Are you straight? I’m sorry if I misread you.”

Tess shook her head, but continued to smile. “No, you didn’t misread.”

Well, that was a relief. She’d hate to think she was losing her sense. “Girlfriend, then? Wife?”

Tess looked at her more earnestly now. “No. You seem very nice, but you’re not my type.”

Not her type? That could mean a thousand different things. Now she had to know. “Okay, I can’t resist asking. What about me isn’t your type?”

Tess shrugged slightly. “I don’t date people who are just passing through.”

Oh. Well, that wasn’t so bad. Not like having something against Cubans or butches or charming writer types. Sam offered a flirtatious smile. “I’m going to be here at least six months. That has to count for something.”

“That makes you an extended tourist, not a local.” Tess folded her arms, but her demeanor remained playful.

Sam weighed her options. She could let it go, call up Kelly the rental agent, who seemed more than happy to go out with an extended tourist. Something about Tess had captured her attention, though. Sam felt compelled to get to know her. Besides, Tess didn’t seem put off by their back and forth; if anything, she seemed to be enjoying it as much as Sam. And it’s not like Sam was only interested in sex. “Would you have lunch with me, then? Friendly local showing an out-of-towner some of NOLA’s hidden gems?”

Tess narrowed her eyes. That she was even contemplating it was a good sign. Sam had never been one to hound a woman to go out with her—for many reasons. Tess held her own, though, and sometimes, the pursuit proved more satisfying than an easy tryst. “You had to play the hospitality card, didn’t you?”

Sam shrugged and did her best to look innocent. “You just seem so nice, and here I am, living in New Orleans without a friend to my name.”

Tess laughed, a rich and sexy sound that Sam wanted to hear more of. “You’re laying it on pretty thick here. Aren’t writers supposed to have nuance?”

Sam laughed in return. Tess was even funnier than she’d thought. And she remembered that Sam was a writer. That definitely had to count for something. “Touché. I have to say, though, that romance isn’t my genre.”

“Well, in that case, I guess I’ll cut you a break.”

“And have lunch with me?”

Tess rolled her eyes. “And have lunch with you.”

“Excellent. You pick the day and the place, then tell me where to pick you up.”

“Wednesday at noon. There’s a place called Willy’s off Magazine Street. I’ll meet you.”

Sam enjoyed the way Tess walked the line between playing along and keeping her in check. “Sounds perfect. I’ll be there.”

Date, or pseudo-date, secured, Sam left the restaurant and meandered down St. Charles Avenue to explore the neighborhood and take some photos. She captured oak trees and palm trees, mansions and churches. Even at a leisurely pace, the walk felt good given the number of calories she’d just consumed. She eventually looped back toward home and had almost made it when her phone rang. She almost let it go to voice mail, but guilt kicked in. “Hi, Mama.”

“Hi, honey. Did I catch you at a bad time?”

Sam climbed the porch steps, but sat in one of the white rocking chairs instead of going inside. “Not at all. I was just getting home.”

“And where is that this week? Are you still in Texas?”

“No, I’m in New Orleans. I just started a new project.”

“Did you tell me that’s where you were going? I don’t remember you saying so.”

“I thought I had, but maybe not. I’ve only been here about a week.”

“Your father and I honeymooned in New Orleans. Lovely city. You have a cousin there, you know.”

As was often the case when she spoke with her mother, Sam had to work to keep up. “I don’t think I knew that. Where did you and Dad stay?”

Her mother sighed. “It was this tiny little hotel a few blocks from Jackson Square, owned by a friend of your grandfather. I wonder if it’s still there.”

Sam enjoyed the moment of sentimentality. Her mother didn’t have them often, or at least not with her. “If you give me the name or the address, I’ll look for it. Send you a photo.”

“I’ll ask your father. I can’t remember exactly, but I’m sure he will. Have you called up Elisa yet? How is she?”

Sam cringed. She had a vague recollection of her cousin Elisa, including the fact that she was a lawyer who lived in New Orleans. Sam hadn’t seen her since Elisa’s quinceañera, though, which was over ten years ago. What Sam remembered was a girl a few years younger than her, prettier and more feminine. In Sam’s memory, Elisa had been aloof and uninterested in a tomboy older cousin, but maybe she’d just been shy. “I haven’t seen her. I don’t think I have her contact information even.”

“That’s nonsense. I’ll get her number from your Aunt Maria. You have to see her while you’re in town. What would she think if she knew you were living right there and didn’t even call her?”

Sam wanted to say that she wouldn’t think anything if she didn’t know Sam was in New Orleans to begin with. She knew better than to go down that path with her mother, though. “You send me her number and I’ll call her.”

“I’ll get it when I talk to Maria tonight.”

Hoping the matter was settled, Sam tried to change the subject. “How are you? How’s Dad?”

“Oh, we’re good. Your father is clucking about retirement, but he does that every year around this time.”

Sam’s father had been a middle school music teacher all of Sam’s life. She had no idea how he kept the patience and stamina to do it. “The problem with teaching is that you keep getting older and they stay the same age.”

“So he says. He’ll be glad for summer, but come August he’ll be itching to go back.”

“Not ready to have him around all the time?”

“We’ve already established he’s going to have to get a part time job when he does retire. He’ll go stir crazy without something to do.”

“Not to mention driving you crazy in the process.”

“Our staying happy and growing old together is contingent on him not being bored and underfoot all day.”

Sam laughed. She shared her father’s need to stay busy. “I’m sure you’ll help him find something to do with himself when the time comes.”

“I most certainly will. Tell me what you’re working on now.”

Sam gave her a brief overview, knowing her mother asked out of motherly duty more than genuine interest. She got the updates on her siblings, nieces, and nephews, then let herself get talked into a weekend in Philly for Easter. When she finally ended the call, Sam remained on the porch for a moment. It had actually been a nice conversation. She made a promise to herself to call within the week. She’d stay in touch and both she and her mother would feel better for it.

Sam went inside and straight to her office. She considered letting herself off the hook for the afternoon with the excuse that her concentration was broken. She opened her notebook, though, and read through her notes. Then she scrolled through the photos she’d taken over the course of the day. It was just enough to put her back in her groove and she got a solid two hours of writing in before her phone snapped her out of it.

As promised, her mother was sending her Elisa’s phone number. That text was immediately followed by another. Maria says she’s a lesbian now!

Sam sighed. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad, although her mother’s use of the word “now” and an exclamation point gave her pause. She decided texting was an acceptable, if not downright preferential, way of communicating with someone her age. She crafted a greeting she thought blended enthusiastic with casual. Elisa’s reply was both instant and friendly. Before she knew it, Sam had plans to meet her for dinner the following week.