Authors: Julie Mulhern
Tags: #historical romance, #select historical, #New Orleans, #entangled publishing, #treasure
Murder in the streets and passion in the shadows....
Before he died, Christine Lambert’s father won a piece of eight in a poker game. How was he to know the coin was part of a puzzle that when solved revealed the location of Jean Laffite’s treasure? Now Christine must find the treasure before the killer beats her to it.
Matthias Blake is as out of place in New Orleans as a raven in a flock of hummingbirds. He has serious work to do and Christine is a distraction he doesn’t need. But how can he resist a lady in distress—even if that lady can win a fight armed with a hat pin? Together they must overcome their pasts and defeat dark forces sent by a shadowy evil. In the process, they just might find the greatest treasure of all…
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Julie Mulhern. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Entangled Publishing, LLC
2614 South Timberline Road
Fort Collins, CO 80525
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Select Historical is an imprint of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
Edited by Alethea Spiridon
Cover design by Erin Dameron-Hill
Cover art by Period Images
Manufactured in the United States of America
First Edition July 2016
New Orleans, 1903
Christine Lambert jabbed herself with a pin and a bright drop of blood welled at the tip of her finger.
Her mind was elsewhere. Her carelessness was her father’s fault.
Warwick Lambert had been missing for a week. A dark cloud of worry had followed her every step the last few days. She’d even wired Trula about his absence.
Trula’s return cable ZEKE SENDING HELP STOP had been a comfort.
If only the promised help would arrive.
She wiped her finger on a handkerchief and wrinkled her nose at the sudden stench of sulfur.
Christine lifted her gaze from the collection of silk roses on the counter. What in the world?
A wave of cologne accosted her. Bay rum. So strong it almost overwhelmed the other odors. Almost. Not quite.
Never had her gardenia-perfumed hat shop smelled like this.
The door opened and a man entered.
Christine schooled her face into a polite mask. The man was the source of the bay rum and seemingly the other odor as well.
His suit was cut from fine cloth and fit him well. His hair was pomaded as neatly as a banker’s. Even his shoes were shined. He looked like a man interested in buying a hat for his wife. He lurched like a man who’d had too much to drink. There was something wrong, off. That, and he smelled worse than a garbage pit on a July afternoon.
If he lingered too long, her shop might smell, too.
“May I help you?” She offered him a chilly smile.
He wet his lips and stared at her with red-rimmed eyes. “Eight.” His voice was as rusty as old hinges.
“Eight?” Eight hats? For eight hats she’d tamp down the fear that bloomed in her chest at the sight of his eyes. She’d add some warmth to her smile. She’d even tolerate the smell a while longer. “You need eight hats?”
He shook his head. “The piece of eight. Give it to me.”
Christine called on a lifetime’s worth of practice faking a calm, cool demeanor and kept her gaze and voice steady. The smile ran away. “I believe you have the wrong shop. I sell hats.”
The red rimming the man’s eyes bled until even his pupils looked crimson. “You have it.” The man leaned against her glass-fronted counter. Then, with a sweep of his arm, he sent the silk roses cascading to the carpet. “Give it to me.”
Christine’s heart beat in her ears and her fingers turned cold. She took a deep breath and regretted it when the smell of sulfur hit her lungs. “I don’t carry Spanish silver.” She gripped the edge of the counter. “You should try the antique shop down the street.”
He splayed his hands across the counter, marring its sparkling surface.
Christine looked from his hands to his face and back again. Never show fear—a basic tenet of survival. Who cared if her heart raced faster than a colt at Fair Ground? She raised a quizzical brow.
He flexed his fingers until his hands looked like claws. Real ones. He dragged the claws across the glass. His nails scored the surface.
Saints above. Her already cold fingers turned to ice and her mouth went dry.
The man growled.
Run! Save yourself!
Her body primed for flight. How many steps to the door? It didn’t matter. He stood in her path and she wasn’t running away from her own shop. She’d rather fight—just as soon as her heart stopped trying to escape her chest. Christine shifted her gaze from his beastly hands to his face.
With his red eyes, he hardly looked human. “Give. It. To. Me.”
Christine retreated until her back touched the display cabinet built into the wall. Her hands scrabbled for a weapon and found nothing.
A foot or two to the left, her father’s cane leaned against the wall. She sidled toward the walking stick. It would have to do.
That dratted coin! Wherever he was, her father owed her an abject apology and a lengthy explanation.
Mattias Drake scowled at the backs of the ladies meandering down the sidewalk. Not a sidewalk. A banquette. And so narrow that he couldn’t pass the slow-moving women without stepping into the mire-filled street.
He pulled at his collar and wiped a trickle of sweat from his temple. It was hotter than blazes and the damned air was so thick a talented tailor could use it as fabric for a suit. No wonder the ladies walked slower than spent mules.
How could anyone stand to live here? The heat. The humidity. And then there were the people—terminally polite. The women would bless your heart before they gutted you like a catfish pulled fresh from the Mississippi. The men smiled around the memories of their grandfathers and fathers and uncles, hallowed dead lost in the war. Not the Civil War, not even the War Between the States—those ancestors died in the War of Northern Aggression.
Drake’s accent marked him as a descendant of those aggressors. No one let him forget he was a Yankee. Not for an instant.
But the worst thing about New Orleans was the ghosts. They were everywhere. Thick as flies on manure. And it seemed to him that half the population could see them. He’d even seen a newsboy conversing with the shade of a Confederate soldier.
Zeke Barnes owed him a whale of a favor. New Orleans? Some flibbertigibbet milliner with a missing father? He lengthened his stride. The sooner he found the man, the sooner he’d be on a train north.
He pulled the hastily scrawled address from his pocket and compared numbers.
The windows were filled with hats—hardly surprising for a hat shop—but these hats… He shook his head then pushed open the door to the shop and paused, letting his eyes adjust. Bows and ribbons and bits of lace, silk flowers, velvet bands, feathers. And hats. Hats everywhere. All displayed on shining brass stands. Flights of fancy that looked completely unable to complete a hat’s primary task: keeping its wearer’s head warm.
Where was she? The place seemed to be empty.
He poked at a hat seemingly made of silk flowers. As hats went, it was about as useful as the loops and curls on the balcony rails in Jackson Square. More style than substance.
Drake’s body tensed. He unbuttoned his coat and his fingers closed around the handle of his revolver. “Hello?” His voice was loud enough to carry to the back rooms.
His answer was a second crash.
A man stumbled backward through the swinging door that presumably led to the workroom. He tripped on the edge of the carpet and landed on his backside.
The man brought with him the overpowering scent of sulfur and rotting fruit.
A woman followed him, wielding a zebra wood cane. She held it like a sword.
The man leapt to his feet and advanced on the woman.
She was dainty and frilly and armed with only a cane. That she’d knocked the brute down was a miracle, that she’d do it again, an impossibility.
Drake drew his gun from its holster. “Hey!”
Neither combatant paid him the slightest attention.
The woman swung the cane, splintering its length across the man’s head.
The man didn’t flinch. Instead, he came at her. His tensed hands easily fended off the woman’s fancy broken stick. He fisted one of those hands into an enormous ball of muscle and bone and mottled skin. He meant to hit her.
She was so tiny she might not survive such a blow.
Drake pointed his gun toward the ceiling and squeezed the trigger.
The man froze. The woman shifted her gaze to the newly minted hole in the ceiling. Her brows drew together. Her lips thinned. “Have you lost your mind?”
The man swung.
She ducked with the grace of a professional boxer.
The fist connected with a hat stand, sending a collection of bows masquerading as a hat careening to the carpet.
If possible, her expression grew fiercer.
The man swung again.
Again she ducked. She was as light on her feet as Joe Gans. Although a southern lady probably wouldn’t appreciate being compared to a Negro boxer. Even if he was the Lightweight Champion of the World.
The man brought back his arm for a third attempt and Mattias grabbed fabric, rock-hard muscle, and pulsing anger.
The man growled and turned.
Eyes red as fresh-spilled blood stared at him. Not the red-rimmed orbs of a man who stayed out too late. The eyes were red. Pupils. Irises. Whites. All red.
“Demon.” The words slipped through his lips unchecked. He glanced at the woman. Did she know what had attacked her? Was her pale skin any paler? If she fainted, she might hurt herself.
She turned away from him. Opened a concealed cabinet and withdrew…something. Her back blocked his view.
The demon’s free arm arced toward him, its fist connecting with his jaw.
His head snapped back and stars danced in his eyes.
With the hand holding his gun, Drake smashed the beast’s head. The blow had the same effect as the woman’s cane. None at all.
A fine kettle of fish this was. Zeke hadn’t said a word about fighting demons. Drake wasn’t prepared for hell spawn.
“Duck!” The woman’s voice carried unexpected authority.
A sluice of water splashed the demon’s face. The moisture sizzled, dancing a macabre dance on the creature’s skin. It bubbled. It raised welts. It smoked. The beast tore at its own flesh. It fell to the floor. Limbs seizing. Mouth frothing.
What was a shopkeeper doing with a pitcher of Holy Water?
She pushed past him, reached into her chignon, and withdrew a hairpin.
She bent near the creature’s head.
Had she lost her mind? Most women would be swooning right about now, not approaching their attacker. “Don’t!”
She ignored him and scratched the sign of the cross into the beast’s forehead with the tip of the pin.
The thing on the floor screamed, its lips stretched into a fearsome snarl. The giant fist twitched once then loosened. Red eyes stared sightlessly at the ceiling.
The woman backed away. “Is he dead?”
He nudged the body with the tip of his boot.
A bit of smoke escaped the lips then vanished in the humid air.
“Did I kill him?” The words came in a rush. She lifted her hand to her mouth, hiding the trembling of her chin.
“No.” She need not carry his death on her conscience any more than he needed to deal with a guilt-ridden, crying woman. “Whatever possessed him killed him.”
“Well, that’s a mercy.” She slumped against the glass display case. “I’m Christine Lambert.” She pronounced the last name
. “Who are you?”
was the hat maker? He’d expected a fussy woman of a certain age, not a virago who fought demons. Certainly not a virago who looked like an angel.
“Mattias Drake.” He slipped his gun back into its holster. Guns tended to make ladies nervous.
This lady tilted her head and stared at him with eyes the shade of Baltic amber. She might have dispatched a demon, but if she was like most of the ladies of his acquaintance, hysterics were probably just around the corner. He dug in his pocket for a handkerchief and held it out to her.
She stared at the neatly folded square for a few seconds then her chin firmed. “Why are you in my shop, Mr. Drake?”
“Zeke Barnes sent me.”
“I see.” Her gaze drifted to the hole in the ceiling then to the body splayed across her carpet. “How long until it disappears?” She steepled her fingers then brought her palms together, a gesture apparently meant to suggest the disappearance of the all-too-corporeal being on the floor. Or maybe she was praying.
He blinked. “Disappears?”
She pulled her hands apart as if a ball inflated between them. “Poof. Disappears. When does the body disappear?”
She expected the body to disappear like mist in the sunshine? Not likely. “When we call a wagon.”
Her nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed. “I should have used more Holy Water.”
At least she had a sense of humor. Most women would faint dead away.
The front door flew open. “Sorry it took me so long. The clerk wouldn’t stop talking. What’s that smell? It’s awful.” The girl who’d pushed through the door wrinkled her nose. “What—” The words died on her lips and the parcel in her arms fell to the floor.
“You missed the excitement, Molly.”
Excitement? The woman thought being attacked by a demon was exciting?
“Wha— wha—” Molly pointed to the body.
The milliner nodded her head toward him. “Molly, this is Mr. Mattias Drake, an associate of Zeke Barnes.”
Molly didn’t spare him a glance. Her gaze remained locked on the corpse on the carpet. “Pleased to meet you, sir.”
The polite reply was meaningless rote, pretty words hiding a lack of true sentiment. The girl, who’d paled to a sickly shade of green, probably didn’t even know she’d said them. “Who is that?” She pointed a shaking finger at the body.
“I haven’t the slightest idea. Do you, Mr. Drake?”
“No,” he replied. He’d been in New Orleans exactly three hours, how could he?
They all stared at the body.
“I don’t suppose you’d care to look and see if he has any identification.” The milliner might look cool and collected but her dainty hands gripped the edge of the counter hard enough to whiten her knuckles.