Juliet Rose Astor Lowell paused in the shade of the marble
columns outside the 8th District police station and discreetly
blotted her forehead with the back of her wrist. Drawing in a deep breath,
she softly expelled it. Lord, it was hot. And so humid. Just the short
walk from air-conditioned car left her feeling limp. She peeled a clinging
yard of voile away from her thighs and gave her dress a delicate shake
to promote air circulation. She'd been in New Orleans less than an hour
and already things were entirely different than what she'd envisioned
when she left Massachusetts.
But that was mostly due to this unscheduled stop. She had
thought to have the tiniest bit more freedom down here; that seemed a
small enough thing to wish for. After all, she was away from Grandmother's
rigid constraints, in a city whose name was synonymous with enjoyment
and whose inhabitants certainly had no preconceived expectations of her
as an Astor Lowell. And it wasn't as if she'd planned a wild spree of
dancing naked across tabletops, for heaven's sake-- she had simply thought
to loosen the ever-present restraints a little. Just enough to take a
really deep breath.
But even that small measure of emancipation was to be denied
her. Once again Father had arranged matters without bothering to consult
her, dropping this little bombshell as a fait accompli over the
limo phone. Crown Hotels had received a letter protesting the opening
of the New Orleans Garden Crown. He'd read it to her over the phone, and
if it had struck her as somewhat less of a threat than an ardent treatise
against the bastardization of an historic landmark, that simply didn't
signify. Father wanted police protection for her, so here she was, all
choice removed from her control. She pulled open the door and entered
Her ears were still attuned to the crisp accents of New
England, so the slow, soft drawls of the officers manning the counter
sounded almost foreign. When she turned away from the desk and followed
the directions to the captain's office, she inconspicuously --but avidly--
observed everything around her. She'd never been in a police station before,
and it felt both exotic and full of energy.
The man who rose from behind his desk when she tapped on
his door was neither. He had the prosperous, well-fed look of a politician--
Father's kind of person; exactly the sort she was accustomed to dealing
with. The man's brown hair was expensively barbered, his ruddy cheeks
shone from a close shave, and his suit was cleverly cut to minimize the
appearance of a middle that had began to spread. Police work must pay
better than she'd thought.
"Captain Pfeffer? I'm--"
"Ms. Juliet Lowell," he overrode her enthusiastically. His
voice at least was exotic, dripping elongated, honeyed vowels. He rounded
the desk and extended a smooth, manicured hand.
Astor Lowell. She swallowed the impulse to correct
him, though the desire to do so was purely automatic after years of conditioning
at Grandmother's knee. Smiling politely, she shook his hand.
"Please," he said, patting her hand avuncularly as he lead
her into the office. "Do c'mon in and have a seat. Your fawtha and I had
a long talk, and I've been expectin' you."
"Yes, I know." Juliet sat. Though it was most likely futile,
she insisted quietly, "Father was a bit precipitous, I fear. There's truly
no need for me to monopolize the services of an officer whose time could
be better employed elsewhere."
"Nonsense. Sergeant Dupree is happy to be of assistance.
Don't you worry your pretty little...well." He cleared his throat, undoubtedly
seeing something in her expression that warned him he was wandering down
an avenue unpopular at best. "The New Awleens Police Department is always
happy to assist a pretty lady," he substituted heartily, which was not
a great improvement in Juliet's opinion. "We believe in assigning the
best to the best. I was personally hand-picked by the Commissionah himself
to be acting captain when my predecessor left on an extended vacation.
And I in turn have handpicked the detective best suited to be your escort."
Juliet smiled politely. Then her brows drew together. "Detective?
Oh, but...I thought you said he was a sergeant." This just kept getting
worse and worse. Bad enough to usurp the services of an officer-- now
she had visions of taking a detective away from a murder investigation.
"There is no official rank of detective in the NOPD. Most
of 'em hold the rank of Police office III or Sergeant." He waved the distinction
aside. "I must say we're all verra excited that Crown Hotels has decided
to grace our fair city with one of their fine establishments. Why, society
has hardly talked of anythin' else."
Somehow she doubted that, but at least this was an area
in which she was comfortable. She'd waited years to be in charge from
conception to start-up, and the New Orleans hotel was her baby. "Yes,
we're also quite excited about the Garden Crown," she agreed.
"As well you should be. And you needn't be concerned for
your safety while you go about your business, because we're heah to see
to it that you aren't left alone and unprotected for a single moment."
That's what Juliet was afraid of.
"I understand y'all have quite a roster of excitin' pre-opening
events planned," the captain continued enthusiastically.
"Yes, we do." Juliet briefly summarized the upcoming social
schedule. He looked at her so expectantly that she concluded with automatic
courtesy, "You and your wife must join us for one."
"Why thank you, Ms. Lowell, I know she'd like that. She's
a Collier, you know. From the Savannah Colliers."
"Is she." Juliet had no idea who the Savannah Colliers were,
but she supposed it explained his apparent wealth. Long-standing instincts
decreed it unlikely he was the descendant of old Southern wealth, for
he had the too-eager-to-impress unctuousness she associated with Father's
sycophants. Manners instilled from the cradle, however, dictated the only
acceptable reply. "Most likely you're already on the list then, but I'll
be sure to have my assistant send you an invitation." She stole a glance
at her watch.
Pfeffer caught her at it, which would have appalled Grandmother,
but at least it had the benefit of hustling him along. "I realize you're
busy-- let me just summon Dupree."
He reached for the phone on his desk, but Juliet rose to
her feet. "We needn't pull him away from his duties." Father might have
a feudal belief that the welfare of the Lowells had priority over anyone
else's, but Grandmother maintained that an Astor Lowell did not inconvenience
others for the sake of her own comfort. And Grandmother's rules took precedence
in Juliet's social training, since she had essentially raised her from
the time of Juliet's mother's death and had therefore had time to drum
them into her from birth-- whereas Father had merely dropped into her
life from time to time to lay down a new law before departing to re-immerse
himself in his precious corporation. "Please," she insisted now. "We can
just as easily go to him."
Pfeffer continued to punch out numbers. "No. Trust me, little
lady, you need to begin as you mean to go on with Sergeant Dupree. While
I can assure you he's one of New Awleens finest, he does tend to rise
above himself if you give him the least little opportunity. It's bettah
to make him come to us."
Juliet didn't want to be here in the first place, and having
her wishes ignored with such head-patting condescension by a man she was
rapidly coming to suspect was a petty little tyrant was the push that
crossed the line. Gaze level and her voice icy, she said, "But I insist."
A fleeting irritation registered on Pfeffer's face, but
he set down the receiver and stood. "Yes, of course," he said smoothly.
"Whatevah you wish." He came around the desk and then stood aside with
an obsequious smile to allow her to precede him from the office. "Right
this way. We'll take the elevatah."
"Josie Lee's on the warpath," Beau Dupree informed his partner
gloomily. "She says I'm overprotective and smothering, and she's moving
out." He looked at Luke Gardner. "You think I'm overprotective?"
Beau scowled. "Bullshit. Hell, if it weren't for this case,
I'd pack her damn bags myself-- I dream of the time I'm no longer
responsible for everyone. As things stand, though, she'll move out over
my dead body." He shook his head in disgust. "Overprotective, my ass."
"Beau, for Christ's sake, listen to yourself. When are you
gonna let yourself off the hook for that, man? It wasn't your fault."
"The hell it wasn't." Beau's scowl deepened. He'd allowed
his baby sister to come to a strip joint late at night. It didn't matter
that she'd tracked him down via his cell phone, or how insistent she'd
been that she had to have the car, refusing to let him get back to work
until he'd agreed out of pure frustration to let a friend bring her by
to get the keys. He should have insisted that he needed it himself, even
though he'd ridden with Luke. Sure, he'd extracted her promise that the
friend would drop her off where he'd left the car parked near the station
and wait until she was safely inside. Big fuckin' deal. He and Luke had
been staking out the joint in the first place because of the Panty Snatcher,
a man who broke into women's homes and forced them at gun point to strip
and hand over their lingerie, terrorizing them with the unspoken possibilities
of what else he might force them to do before he melted back into the
night with his booty. Beau had known damn well the club was the only common
denominator of the pervert's last two victims. He'd had no business letting
Josie Lee anywhere near the place.
"It's not like I couldn't use the peace, Gardner. I'd love
to have the house all to myself. And I live for the day that I get my
old sex life back." Now there was an understatement. He'd been fantasizing
about the day for ten solid years.
Luke grinned. "Balls developin' a blueish tinge?"
Beau gave him a look. "Hey, you try raising three opinionated
sisters and see what it does to your nuts. It hasn't exactly been the
wild bachelor lifestyle it was before my folks died." Then he, too, grinned.
"The minute Josie Lee's out the door, though, I'm picking it up right
where I left off. First thing I'm gonna do--"
"--Is find me a little blonde with big tits. Or maybe two
blondes-- or a blonde and a redhead-- I'm not fussy. Then I'm climbing
into bed with her or them, and I'm not comin' up for air for a week."
The thought carved a smile on his face, which disintegrated when his friend
kicked his foot off the opened lower desk drawer where it had been propped.
Beau straightened in irritation. "What the hell's the matter with you?"
"Sergeant Dupree," Pissant Pfeffer said with rigid disapproval
from behind him. "You will kindly watch your language, sir. There's a
Beau turned in his seat. Oh, great-- his favorite bureaucrat.
And if that wasn't enough to just make his day, Acting Captain Peter Pfeffer
was accompanied by a long-legged woman who regarded him with huge grey
eyes, as if he were some unique species in the zoo. He gave her a slow
once-over in return.
"I'd like to introduce you to Ms. Juliet Lowell," Pfeffer
said with that unctuous snake-oil-salesman's smile that always set Beau's
teeth on edge. "Your new assignment," he added with vicious triumph. "Ms.
Lowell, meet Sergeant Beauregard Dupree."
Juliet felt the sudden tension of every person in the squad
room and realized she had made a mistake when she hadn't allowed Captain
Pfeffer to send for his detective. This smelled suspiciously of a power
play, and due to her insistence it was being played out in a public forum.
When the man whose conversation they'd interrupted had turned
lazily in his seat and appraised her with black eyes so heavily lashed
they drooped at the outside corners, Juliet had prayed it was the handsome
bald guy with the engaging grin just beyond him who would be her new bodyguard.
No such luck, of course. Her heart began to bang against
the wall of her chest as the black-haired detective climbed to his feet
and gave her a comprehensive once-over. He wasn't particularly
handsome. Which was just as well, since gorgeous looks would have been
overkill. The man was extremely... male. He was more male than any Y-chromosome-bearing
individual she'd ever come across. A snatch of his conversation whispered
through her mind. Week-long sex with multiple partners? Dear
God, did people truly do that sort of thing? She stared at him,
repelled and yet fascinated at the same time.
He returned her gaze, one thick, dark eyebrow lifted, and
a corner of his mouth quirked as if he were privy to something that secretly
amused him. Then he turned to face Captain Pfeffer and his black brows
lowered, amusement conspicuously absent. Every eye in the room was on
him and everyone seemed to be holding their breath, as if awaiting an
explosion. But he merely exchanged a glance with the other detective and
said with a mildness that Juliet instinctively knew was fraudulent, "I
already have an assignment, Pete."
"That's Captain Pfeffer!" The ranking officer puffed up
with indignation as he spat the correction. "And your assignment is what
I say it is, Dupree. I say it's Ms. Lowell."
The detective was only average height, maybe five ten or
eleven. His shoulders were wide, however, his hips were narrow, and he
had the lean muscle mass of a swimmer. Black hair feathered his forearms
and was visible behind the unbuttoned placket of his polo shirt. His jaw,
too, was dark with five o'clock shadow, though it was only eleven in the
morning. He looked tough and competent as he stared at the captain, and
his cool control made his superior appear soft and nearly hysterical in
contrast. It was therefore a surprise when the detective suddenly rolled
his shoulders and turned to her in compliance with Pfeffer's order.
"Miz Lowell," he said silkily, thrusting a hand out
at her. He, too, had a slow, lazy drawl, but Juliet saw the energetic
fury in the depths of his black eyes. "This is my partner--"
"You don't have a partner, Dupree," Pfeffer interrupted.
"Bite me," Beau invited, but explained to Juliet, "The NOPD
decentralized in '96. Luke here was my partner before then, and I'm not
about to start callin' him my ex-partner at this late date." He indicated
the man with the smooth-shaven skull. "In any case, meet Sergeant Gardner."
"Ma'am," the detective said, but although Juliet acknowledged
his greeting with a polite dip of her head, she couldn't seem to pull
her gaze away from Sergeant Dupree.
He was a little sweaty; she could see it in the sheen along
his throat and where his black knit shirt stuck in spots to his chest
and stomach muscles. But the hand he wrapped around hers to shake was
dry and brown-skinned, long fingered and hard. And it was warm, very warm.
Juliet dropped it as soon as was decently possible, feeling
flustered and edgy. Curling fingers that retained the sensation of his
touch within the shielding folds in her skirt, she felt heat climb up
her cheeks. The men in her world had hands that were smooth and pale and
somehow cool. A frisson of uneasiness crept down her spine.
"Beauregard will be at your service as long as you're in
New Awleans," Captain Pfeffer said pompously and gave the detective a
glare. "Right, Dupree?"
Keeping his eyes on her, Beau took a step that brought him
much too close and cocked his head quizzically. "Is there a particular
reason you need babysittin', dawlin'?"
Unaccustomed to physical contact, she stepped back. Though
she was too mannerly to protest the endearment, her chin came up and she'd
opened her mouth to offer a cool reply when Pfeffer jumped into the breech.
"Ms. Lowell is down heah to open the Garden Crown, a fine
new jewel in the glitterin' tiara that comprises the Crown Hotels," he
"And she's-- what? --had the heap burgled already and needs
a cop?" Beau's eyes were insolent as he looked down at her. "In that case,
sugar, you've come to the best."
"Watch your tongue, Dupree. Ms. Lowell has received a threatening
letter and I'm assigning you to keep her safe."
Breaths were sucked in throughout the room and everyone
drew back as if Beau were a ticking bomb primed to go off. Juliet wished
she understood what the hell was going on. Clearly there were underlying
subtexts here she didn't understand. Sergeant Dupree's black eyes glittered
with pure fury as his gaze wrenched from her face to the captain's.
"Guard dog duty?" he said through clenched teeth.
"Her fawtha was quite insistent, and he is Thomas
Lowell after all. Here's a copy of the letter." Pfeffer thrust it into
Beau's hands. "I'm sure you'll want to study it. And of course you'll
be gratified to know you'll also be Ms. Lowell's escort for all the hotel's
pre-opening functions," he added with gusto.
"Oh, shit," someone murmured.
Beau scanned the letter. When his dark-eyed gaze raised,
it locked on her face. "Daddy must have some connections," he said with
soft-voiced contempt. "'Cause this--" the white paper in one hand smacked
against the long, brown fingers of his other "--is pure bullshit, but
it looks as if he just bought his baby girl a brand new boy anyway."
If his initial charm had made her heart pound, having all
that fury transferred to her added an almost frantic throb to its erratic
rhythm. Somehow this man managed to wreak havoc with her usually unshakable
composure, leaving her feeling entirely unstrung. Always remember
who you are. Her Grandmother's arrogant exhortation offered unexpected
comfort, and she could use every ounce of ammunition at her disposal.
She gave him a cool smile.
He narrowed his eyes at her and said insolently, "You don't
talk much, do you, angel-face? I like that in a woman."
His partner rolled his eyes and Captain Pfeffer snapped,
"That's quite enough, Sergeant. You will mind your mannahs and address
her as Ms. Lowell."
Beau's hard gaze left her face and zeroed in on the captain's.
His voice lost its honeyed drawl as he lashed out, "Or you'll do what, Acting Captain Pfeffer? Remove me from her case and put me on
somethin' a little less... important... like the Panty Snatcher case?"
"Forget that piddly-ass case!" Captain Pfeffer's
polished facade cracked as he thrust his jaw pugnaciously near Beau's.
"I've given you your assignment, and you'll do what you're damn well told,
or I'll strip you of your gold shield." It was an idea he clearly relished.
"Oh, please," Juliet protested in distress, but Beau cut
on, Miz Lowell." His hand wrapped around her wrist and he headed
for the door, pulling her in his wake.
"Dupree!" Pfeffer's voice behind them was a peremptory warning
to halt, but Beau never slackened his pace.
Stumbling along behind him, Juliet cast a brief look over
her shoulder at the Captain and Sergeant Gardner and gave them a helpless
shrug. Then they were lost to sight as the warm-skinned hand that held
her captive yanked her out the door.
End of Excerpt.