Remy Comeaux pulled up in front of the lavish Saint Charles Avenue mansion just before dark on Sunday evening.Nice digs, he thought as he took out his wallet and grabbed a few bills to tip the limo driver. Had he shown up in his beloved beat-up pickup truck, it might have been a little harder to crash the party. He wanted nothing to spoil the surprise he had planned for the guest of honor.
The last time he’d seen Lee Barnaby had been the day Katrina had roared into New Orleans, drowning Remy’s hopes and dreams along with much of Crescent City. The night he’d lost Carlotta. His fiancée. His reason for living. His heart.
Lee had been only the deputy superintendent of police then. Not that most civilians or cops referred to him that way. In everyday matters, it was simply Chief or Deputy Chief. Tonight Barnaby was celebrating his rise to the top rung of the department. Remy was back in town to make sure his reign was short-lived.
Remy adjusted the uncomfortable silk cummerbund of his rented tux as he walked up the paved path toward the plantation-style home with its massive white pillars and wide verandas. Light spilled into the gathering twilight, and music and laughter drifted through the open doorway.
An aging, mustached butler stood sentinel at the heavy wood-and-etched-glass double doors. He scrutinized Remy for a few seconds, as if he were trying to place him. Evidently the limo and monkey suit were not enough to sell Remy as an invited guest.
“Good evening,” Remy said. “Looks like I’m at the right place.”
“Yes, sir. Can I have your name, sir?”
“Andre Comeaux,” he said, using the first name of a cousin who just happened to be one of LSU’s former legendary quarterbacks. “Just flew in from the West Coast. Wouldn’t have missed this for the world.”
“Yes, sir,” the butler said, finally buying his act and flashing a welcoming smile. “Welcome to the Delacroix home.”
“Mrs. Delacroix requests that her guests gather in the ballroom at eight o’clock. Until then, the first floor of the house and the back gardens are at your disposal. Enjoy yourself.”
“Thanks. I’m sure I will.” Remy walked away as the next guests arrived and the butler went through his rehearsed spiel again.
It didn’t take but a minute of wandering for Remy to realize that locating Lee Barnaby among the throng of guests in the sprawling house might not be as easy as he’d figured. A waiter passed with a tray of cocktails. Remy accepted a vodka martini. This was his first and no doubt his last foray into New Orleans old-money high society. He may as well partake of the perks.
He had to admit the house was impressive, though he couldn’t imagine living here. Where would a man prop up his feet, pop a top and flick on the TV to watch a Saints game? Surely old man Delacroix had a man cave that was off-limits to Marilyn Delacroix’s interior-design team.
Remy made the rounds from room to room, doing his best to remain inconspicuous as he scanned the partiers. He didn’t come across Lee, but he recognized a few of the chief’s pets from his old days with the department. The suck-ups who’d done Lee’s bidding without question had no doubt moved right up the pay scale.
Amazingly, none of them recognized Remy, even though he practically ran into one of Lee’s go-to cops from the pre-Katrina days. Charlie Gibbons had been the man who’d fastened the cuffs around his wrists the night Remy had been hauled off to jail.
Had he noticed Remy, he’d have no doubt raced to give Lee a heads-up that trouble was stalking the party scene. Fortunately, good old Charlie was far too engrossed in the cleavage of the woman draped across his shoulder to notice Remy.
Admittedly, Remy had changed a lot in eight years. He’d gained a few pounds—all muscle. Working out at a local gym and coaching a boxing team of underprivileged boys had become his grief-and-frustration outlet once he’d moved to Houston and started his own private detective agency.
He’d let the military haircut grow out. His nose, which had had been broken a couple of times playing football and again when he was a narc detective, had finally been straightened by an expert surgeon. And the boyish grin that Carlotta Worthing-ton had loved had been replaced by a wary, brooding edge—or so he’d been told.
He stepped into a spacious dining room with rows of tall windows that offered views of a meticulously tended English garden lit by what appeared to be strings of stars strung through the spreading branches of dozens of century-old live oak trees.
There were no chairs at the beautifully crafted antique mahogany dining table, but it and an equally impressive sideboard were laden with seafood. The oysters on the half shell looked too tasty to resist.
Remy had just slipped one between his lips when he felt a hand on his arm. He turned and looked into the deep violet eyes of one of the most stunning women he’d ever seen in his life, though she was likely twice his thirty-one years.
She smiled and moved her head just enough that her exquisite diamond earrings trapped the dazzling sparkles emanating from the multifaceted chandelier. “I’m Marilyn Delacroix. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
Remy smiled. “No, I don’t believe we have. I’m an old friend of Lee’s, but I don’t get back to New Orleans often.”
“You should make time. In spite of what you might hear, the city is almost as vibrant and lively as before.”
“I can see that. And you throw a great party.”
“Thank you. I didn’t catch your name.”
A young woman in a black suit without the requisite sequins and huge diamonds hugging her neck and dangling from her ears stepped next to Marilyn before he had time to lie.
“I hate to interrupt you,” the woman said, her tone and manner all business. “Mr. Delacroix asked me to find you.”
“Is there a problem?”
“Yes, ma’am. He said the mayor has been held up and he’s not certain he can make it in time for the formalities.”
“Oh, dear. We can’t start without him. He’s giving Lee’s congratulatory speech.”
Marilyn turned her eyes if not her attention back to Remy. “Perhaps we can talk later. In the meantime, enjoy yourself. I know you must be as proud of Lee as we are.”
“Absolutely. He’s a breed unto himself.”
“My husband says it’s about time Lee received recognition for all he’s done for the city.”
And Remy was here to see that Lee got exactly what was coming to him. The sins of old had ridden long enough. It was payback time.
By the time Remy reached the ballroom, it was teeming with guests. Couples rocked the dance floor to the beat of a loud, jarring tune Remy had never heard before and with any luck would never hear again.
He scanned the room, growing antsy when he still didn’t spot Lee. Surely the guy wasn’t late to a party given in his honor.
Finally the band took a break. Remy’s ears enjoyed the moment until a woman’s laughter caught him off guard, so hauntingly familiar it sliced into his heart.
He took a deep breath. His mind was playing cruel tricks on him. He had to get a grip. He’d known returning to New Orleans would bring back the old memories, but he couldn’t let anything get in the way of what he’d come to do.
Yet when he heard the laughter again, he found himself walking toward the sound until he spotted the woman responsible for the free-spirited exuberance. She was facing away from him, but the straight, silky red hair that reached her shoulders was so much like Carlotta’s that Remy had to struggle to breathe.
She was taller than Carlotta, or perhaps the height came from the silver heels that peeked from below a swirl of emerald-green silk. Her waist was as narrow as Carlotta’s had been, her shapely hips well-defined.
Damn. Start falling prey to old desires and he’d make a fool of himself. Carlotta was dead. The woman with the lyrical laugh and burnished red hair was a stranger. Still, he was far too intrigued at this point to walk away without seeing her face.
He circled her and the young woman at her side, keeping his distance, but not so far away that he couldn’t see the fullness of her red lips or the nose that turned up ever so slightly. Her smile was dazzling. Her features were striking. She was an absolute knockout.
She wasn’t Carlotta.
He exhaled slowly, regaining a much-needed sense of equilibrium. But then their gazes met and for a second a sense of deja vu ran so strong that it rocked his soul.
He turned away, exchanged his empty glass for a full one from the tray of a timely waiter and strode toward the double doors that led to the back loggia. He needed fresh air and to put some space between himself and the tantalizing redhead.
Nicole Smith’s gaze followed the sexy stranger as he walked away. She was certain she’d never seen him before, yet for one brief moment, she’d felt as if she were drowning in the depths of his whiskey-colored eyes.
Her friend Deanie nudged her with her shoulder. “Who is that luscious creature and why haven’t I met him before?”
“I’ve never seen him before, either, but he must be a friend of Lee’s,” Nicole answered. “Likely someone on the police force.”
“May the force be with me.”
“Your husband might object.”
“Oh, yeah, him,” Deanie teased. “But you’re not married, and you’re the one he was staring at. Go check him out.”
“I’m here with Lee.”
Deanie made no secret of her negativity where Lee was concerned. She thought he was arrogant and chauvinistic, but it was only because she didn’t know him the way Nicole did. Sure, he was tough. He was a cop who’d risen through the ranks. But he had his sensitive side, and he spoiled her in so many ways that she actually wished she were sexually attracted to him.
“Go say hello to the hot stranger,” Deanie urged. “You know you want to.”
“If I do, it’s only because he looks vaguely familiar and I’m wondering if we’ve met before.”
“That’s as good an excuse as any to start up a conversation with a gorgeous hunk.” Deanie put a hand to the small of Nicole’s back and gave her a gentle shove in the stranger’s direction.
“I’ll go introduce myself if you go with me,” Nicole said.
“You are such a wimp, Nicole. Besides, I’m going to find Billy. Suddenly I’m in the mood for a little romantic adventure of my own.”
“If Marilyn catches you having a quickie in one of the upstairs bedrooms, you’ll be blacklisted forever.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it. Too stuffy. I’m thinking about under the fake stars in the back of the Delacroixes’ Saint Charles Avenue garden. How often does a lowly nurse get a chance to do that?”
Deanie sashayed off before Nicole could come up with an appropriate response. Deanie was bright, witty, daring, candid and totally unimpressed with money or social status.
The only reason she and her husband were here tonight was because Nicole had asked Lee to add them to the invitation list. Having Deanie around made these occasions a lot more fun for Nicole and she knew she couldn’t duck out of this one, not when tonight was all about Lee.
Lee—her date for the evening, and yet here she was, drawn to a sexy stranger with mesmerizing eyes and a killer body.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she turned and joined him on the balcony.
“It’s a nice night for a party,” Nicole murmured as she stopped next to the stranger.
When he turned to face her, a ridiculous zinging sensation danced along her nerve endings.
“A splendid night,” he agreed. “And it just got a whole lot better.”
A slow burn crept to her cheeks. Impulsively, she checked his ring finger. It was bare. “I love spring in New Orleans,” she said, directing the subject back to the weather.
“So do I. But blink twice and it will have turned into the humid heat of summer.”
“Ah, you know the city. Do you live here?” she asked.
“I used to—a lifetime ago.”
Edginess crept into his voice, making him all the more intriguing.
“Are you a friend of Lee’s?”
“You could say that.”
“I’m sure he’ll be glad you made the party.”
“If I ever run into him. I’m beginning to think he dodged his own celebration.”
“He’s here somewhere,” Nicole assured him, “probably surrounded by well-wishers or talking police business.”
She put out a hand. “I’m Nicole Smith. You look familiar. Have we met before?”
“No. If we had, I’m sure I’d remember.”
His hand wrapped around her much smaller one and he held it. Her pulse quickened.
“I’m Andre,” he said, smiling and meeting her gaze before finally letting go of her. “Hope you don’t mind my saying so, but you do great things for that dress.”
“Do the Delacroixes always throw such lavish parties?”
He looked around. “They have the perfect mansion for it.”
“The gardens are lovely, too,” Nicole said, “especially this time of the year. You should make time to see them.”
His brows arched. “Is that an offer of a tour?”
“No?. I mean?” She swallowed back a twinge of guilt and a rush of blood that made her positively light-headed. “I would offer, but I have to get back to the party.”
“That’s a gracious brush-off.” He leaned closer and slid his hand across the railing until their fingers touched.
“I should get back to the party myself, but it was nice meeting you, Nicole.”
“Likewise,” she murmured. She leaned on the railing and watched as he walked away, still reeling from the effect he’d had on her and faced with an undeniable truth.
Lee Barnaby had never excited her senses like that.
Remy walked back into the house determined to get his mind off the gorgeous redhead and back where it belonged. The woman had ignited so many sparks that he was still feeling the heat.
But he couldn’t act on the attraction. She reminded him far too much of Carlotta, and not just her laugh. It was her hair, her eyes, her enchanting Southern drawl.
Even if he weren’t about to jump into a blazing fire of his making, contacting her would be a mistake. And not fair to either of them, even if she were willing to see him again.
After another ten minutes of searching, Remy spotted Lee at the far end of the ballroom. He looked much the same as he had eight years ago, except that he’d put on a few pounds and his hair had started to gray a bit at the temples. Still, he looked younger than his age, which Remy knew was somewhere in the early fifties.
Remy cleared the few yards between them without Lee noticing him. He was seconds away from showing his face when Lee was joined by the seductive redhead.
Lee turned and slipped an arm around her shoulder, pulling her into the cluster of people who surrounded him.
The gesture and the smile she flashed for Lee appeared overly familiar, almost intimate. Remy felt a tightening in his gut. The woman had seemed far too nice to get romantically involved with a dirty rat like Lee—even if he hadn’t been too old for her. Not that it was any of Remy’s business.
Remy stayed out of sight, watching silently until Lee whispered something in the woman’s ear that made her smile. Then the illustrious new NOPD chief turned and walked away.
Following quickly, Remy caught up with him just as he ducked into a small, hallway powder room.
Without breaking stride, Remy blocked the door with his foot before it could close completely. He pushed into the tiny room with Lee, then closed and locked the door behind them.
It was time to get reacquainted.