Authors: LAURA HARNER
Forbidden Love 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 persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Laura Harner
Cover by Laura Harner
Edited by Jae Ashley
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States by Hot Corner Press
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You can never give up on love. Not even on a forbidden love.
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Detective Danielle Delacroiux gloved her hands and looked around the cheap motel with a cynical eye. It was the kind of place that charged by the hour, and charged two bucks extra for clean sheets. A double bed with lumps big enough to show through the threadbare bedspread, a scratched wooden desk with a straight-backed chair, and orange shag carpet worn to the nub. Not exactly a luxury suite at the Southern Plantation Bed and Breakfast.
Crease Martin looked pathetic and smelled worse. He was curled on his side, outlined in chalk, knife sticking out of his back. His short dark hair was matted and years of grime blackened the skin on the back of his neck. He never smelled good, but in the moment of death, his bowels had let loose, and now the stench hung heavy in the air.
The techs had nodded their appreciation at Dani when she sent them out of the room as soon as she arrived. She always liked a few minutes alone to get the feel of a place, to put herself in the killer’s mind. The location had been the killer’s choice. He’d brought Crease here, had either called him for a meet or sent him ahead. As cheap as the Mona Lisa Motel was, it still cost more for an hour than Crease made in a day of panhandling. She paced the small room, looking, thinking, imagining.
Why kill him? Crease was a harmless drunk who hung out at the docks and in front of bars. The few pieces of information he’d ever given her had netted Crease a couple of bucks and ride to the county homeless shelter. They’d netted Dani next to nothing in terms of information she could use, but what the heck, the guy had no one.
With a sigh, she called everyone back in, gave the orders. “Bag him,” she told the tech from the medical examiner’s office. “Tell the ME to rush this one. I don’t like this.”
“But, Detective, please. The man’s a wino. Probably homeless. We got a shitload of other cases—more important things to do,” he whined.
Dani turned and glanced at the man’s nametag. “Is that so, Deerfield?” She took a step closer, invading his personal space, completely unconcerned that he was at least six inches taller and seventy pounds heavier than she was. Her voice was soft now. “Unless you want to become the next senseless homicide statistic, I suggest you do as I say. A life is a life, and I dare say Crease here wasn’t ready to go any more than you are. Understood?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he ground out between clenched teeth, a flush of anger coloring his cheeks.
She looked at him a moment longer then turned, dismissing him from her mind.
“Fuckin’ cunt,” he muttered, not quite under his breath.
She didn’t even turn around. Just packed the bagged evidence into a box and left the techs to finish their work.
Dani liked working at the station in the evenings. It was too much like a family reunion around there during the day. Her father, Richard Delacroiux, was the police captain, her uncle Beau and aunt LeAnn were both detectives, and she had a couple of cousins floating around patrol. She’d been an officer herself for four years before she aced the test for detective and applied for the promotion.
After she’d been passed over twice, she’d appealed to the commissioner and finally received her shield. Apparently her father thought her promotion would look like favoritism, but she was damned if she would let anyone hold her back. Not even her dad.
She pulled out a fresh notebook and started a case file on Donald Martin, aka Crease. No known residence. No known address. No known associates. After a depressingly short time, she’d logged all the information. Now she’d have to wait for the autopsy and the fingerprint techs.
The front desk clerk was the only witness so far, and his information was as dubious as his reputation. He denied having rented the room and having seen anyone all afternoon, including Crease. He was watching reruns of
and thought Crease must have slipped by the desk unnoticed. As if you could miss the smell. The clerk had no guesses as to how the room door got unlocked and claimed no knowledge of the distinctive crimson silk handkerchief just underneath the victim’s left shoulder had come from.
Dani closed the notebook and locked it in her desk, then sat thinking. She rolled her shoulders, then arched her neck, stretching to the left, to the right, and finally to the back. It had been a long day, but she couldn’t go home until she went to where she suspected the real root of this crime took place. The Généreux Pier.
The Pier was a fancy name for a district filled with warehouses, flophouses, and dives. A warren of back alleys and dead ends, it was a haven for drug dealers, hookers, and vagrants. Politicians would stand on their soapboxes at election time and vow to clean up crime in Généreux, but the cops and the criminals knew that it wasn’t going to happen. Nobody really cared. The streets of Généreux were safe enough as long as you avoided the south end of the waterfront.
That was where Crease had spent most of his days and nights, in a little ramshackle community of homeless people, beggars, and bums. He panhandled near the Cheatin’ Heart, a bar that straddled the line between neighborhoods. Half the customers were cops, and most of them tossed a few coins Crease’s way when they saw him and then told him to get lost.
He was harmless. So why had someone wanted him dead?
Tonight, Dani parked at the Cheatin’ Heart and walked south. Located halfway between Houston and New Orleans, Généreux was nestled along the bayou and bordered by swampy marshland to the south. The city was big enough to have its own police force, but not so big that you could get lost. At least not for very long.
The late spring evening was a few degrees cooler than sultry, but that wouldn’t stop the mosquitoes from trying to carry a person away. The damp, still air left her feeling sticky and rumpled. A definite fashion disadvantage as she saw two men dressed in fancy suits walking her way. They’d emerged from an alley that ran between an abandoned stretch of warehouses. An odd place for a business meeting.
“Well, well. Look what I found,” she said. She glanced quickly between the two men, looking for any sign of guilty knowledge.
“Danielle,” said Constantine Demetrios, the silver-headed owner of the multimillion-dollar Demetrios Shipping Lines. “You’re certainly out here late.”
“I could say the same for you, Costa. Who’s your friend?” she asked, eying the tall, good-looking stranger.
“Just a business associate. Nothing to concern you. Now, if you’ll excuse us.” Constantine placed a hand on the younger man’s sleeve, as if to guide him away from her prying eyes.
“What’s the matter, Costa? Don’t want to tell me why you’re down here at the Pier after dark? The offices need cleaning? You’ve got nowhere else to do business?” she asked as he moved away.
“What an extraordinarily rude young woman,” the stranger said, his accent pure West Texas. He raised a single brow and looked down at her, before brushing an imaginary speck of dust from his sleeve.
Dani grinned, ready to take the arrogant prick down a couple of notches. He was more than a foot taller than she was, making him close to six and a half feet tall. His hair was a little long and unruly on the top, and he clearly favored the two-day beard look. He was classically handsome, in that too-good-looking-to-be-true sort of way, and it immediately put her guard up. Or maybe it was the fact that the tie that graced his two-thousand-dollar suit looked remarkably similar to the handkerchief found at the scene of the crime.
She followed as they tried to move away. “I don’t believe I caught your name?”
Constantine gave a much-put-upon sigh. “Dani, this is private business. Now go away.”
Dani knew Constantine was trying to dismiss her, but she was not so easily discouraged. He would probably be horrified to know she thought of him as nothing more than another one of her cranky old relatives. After all, he was her uncle Beau’s father as a result of an affair with her mémé Lina. It was something she tried hard not to think about.
“I’m making it my business, Costa, and seeing as how this is public property, I don’t see any problem with that.” She pulled out her shield and held it up for the stranger to see. “Let’s try this again. I’m Detective Danielle Delacroiux, Généreux Police Department. What’s your name?”
“Can it, Costa, I’m asking your friend.”
Mr. Tall, Dark, and Yummy watched the exchange with a smirk on his lips, and Dani thought she’d like to kiss it right off that tasty-looking mouth.
Where the hell had that thought come from?
“Detective, is it?” He added, in an aside to Constantine. “They certainly grow ’em much prettier ’round here than they do back in Texas.”
Dani felt the scowl between her brows. “Your name and identification, if you don’t mind.”
“Oh, but I do mind, sugar,” he said smoothly. “I don’t believe that even in an uncivilized place such as this, a man can be asked for identification without a reason.”
, and funny you should mention that,” she said. “I’ve got plenty of reason. I’m investigating a crime. Now, would you like to answer my questions here or at the station?”
Reaching into his suit jacket for his billfold, he said, “What crime would that be, Detective Danielle Delacroiux? Loitering?” He handed her his identification, and his mouth formed a tight little smile he directed at Constantine.
Dani looked at the driver’s license for a long moment, working at hiding her smile of anticipation. Slowly, she raised her eyes, her gaze tracing along the line of his crimson silk tie, lingering over the empty breast pocket, and moving up until she met brown eyes the color of Kentucky bourbon. She was the cat, and though he didn’t know it yet, he’d just become her favorite mouse.
“Murder, Mr. Hawk Charbonnet. The crime is murder.”
Hawk poured himself a whisky, tossed it back, and poured another. In his father’s house for less than twenty-four hours and already involved in a murder investigation.
“Ah, Junior,” his father said, using a part of Hawk’s much-despised given name, Julian Jr. “How did your meeting with Constantine go?”
Hawk turned and looked at his father. With a sinking feeling, he realized he had the answer to the long-debated question of nature versus nurture. This apple had indeed not fallen far from the tree. At least not far from his father’s tree. His mother, on the other hand, more closely resembled the tree itself. Thick. Susan lacked in many areas, not the least of which was any sense of how to raise a child. She had probably saved his life by putting him in a boarding school at an early age.
The lessons he’d learned at the exclusive private school were not what she’d had in mind, though. Even without his father’s influence, Hawk had gotten caught up with a rough and rowdy crowd. He learned all the practical skills he needed to become a world-class criminal. He’d started small, sneaking away from the dormitories at night so the older boys could teach him to pick pockets. They’d never realized until it was far too late that he always kept back a bit more than his
of the bounty
That was how he bankrolled his other ventures.
It hadn’t been long before young Hawk was running dice and card games and keeping an even larger part of the take. Expanding his business, he was always ready to lend a little cash to help tide a classmate over until his allowance arrived. For a hefty fee plus interest, of course. Profits from his gambling and loan sharking were poured into other endeavors, and by the time Hawk was ready to leave the boarding school, he could have bought the damn place.
Somewhere in the middle of his secondary schooling, he’d become aware of who and what his father was, just as his father had become aware of him. Neither was in any hurry to interrupt Hawk’s education, so the relationship remained on the back burner.
Hawk continued to supply diversions to his friends and was a very wealthy young man by the time he’d completed law school. As a new attorney, he thought it advisable to diversify his investments. No longer finding satisfaction in loans and entertainment, as he’d liked to think of his early businesses, Hawk began purchasing struggling companies and hotels. He sold off the assets and gutted the organization before moving to the next. He would do whatever was necessary to flip a company in twelve to fifteen months without drawing undue interest. He’d managed to operate for years without raising more than an awareness from any authorities.
Then, by chance, he’d purchased Techkneaux, a tech start-up on the edge of bankruptcy and breakthrough. He’d been amused at the obscure reference through creative spelling to his despised Cajun roots. Out of not much more than idle curiosity, he had examined their operating practices and found a few ways to restructure and tighten control over quality. He hired the right manager, and before long, the company was operating at a tremendous profit and he had a staff of loyal employees grateful to have kept their jobs.
What had started as a quick way to raise cash—acting as a pirate, swooping in and looting a troubled company—turned into a passion for rescuing and reinvigorating failing businesses. It was a pleasant surprise to discover he was good at it. His net worth had tripled over the past three years. In fact, other than the occasional criminal case for a former associate, his only legal work now was handling the European contracts for his father’s company.
For the past six months, Hawk had been working hard to get on the right side of the law. He wanted to be completely legitimate by the end of the year. It was one way he could honor his late brother, Peter. The two of them had spoken at length about creating a more respectable version of Charbonnet Enterprises. Just before Peter died last year, he’d urged Hawk to make the Charbonnet name stand for more than their father’s twisted sense of right and wrong. Hawk realized he didn’t want to be known as his father’s pawn; he wanted to be known as an admirable man who could bring good to a company or a community.
Which was why it was more than a little annoying to brush up against a murder investigation as soon as he’d been summoned to his father’s side.
“Junior, did you hear me? I asked about your business with Constantine.” Julian interrupted Hawk’s reminisces.
“I’m sorry, Father, I was distracted. Tell me again exactly
you wanted me to meet with Constantine at the Pier tonight? Our negotiations were perfectly suitable for a boardroom. What’s going on?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, what was your purpose for sending me down there to meet with Constantine tonight? Was it some sort of test?”
“Bah! Don’t be foolish. It was a point of honor for us to get Constantine to agree to meet on our terms, even if there was no actual purpose for the location. It gives us the position of power as the deal reaches its conclusion. I take it the terms were satisfactory?” Julian said, his European accent laced with a trace of the South.
“I don’t know. We never actually got around to discussing business. We were interrupted.”
“Interrupted? Junior, I’m disappointed,” his father said. “If you plan to take over as my sole attorney and closest assistant, I must have complete faith in your ability to carry out my orders. Do I make myself clear?”
Hawk looked over the top of his crystal tumbler as he sipped his whisky. This seemed as good a time as any to tell his father that he wouldn’t be continuing on with Charbonnet Enterprises. For a time he’d been tempted by the idea of stepping into his father’s business as more than just the company attorney—Hawk’s European interests weren’t dissimilar. At least not until recently. With his new direction, Hawk was more confident than ever he wanted nothing more to do with his father’s dealings.
“Count on you?” Julian interrupted. "Of course I must count on you. What in God’s name could interrupt such a simple task?”
“Murder,” answered a cool voice, and Hawk turned to see the blonde goddess with the bad attitude walk through the door.
The housekeeper followed closely on her heels. “I’m sorry, Mr. Charbonnet. She pushed right past me.”
“It’s all right, Mary. I’ll take care of this.” Julian said and then waited until the maid left before he continued. “What is the meaning of this, Detective? Has the Généreux Police Department become so corrupt that they no longer need permission to enter a citizen’s home? Or is it that you’ve paid off a judge and have a search warrant?” He held out his hand as if waiting to receive the legal order.
“Funny, Julian,” Danielle said. “I didn’t realize I needed your invitation, too. Isn’t your son authorized to act as your agent? I’m here because I was invited.”
“Yes, well, we were just getting to that part, Father,” Hawk said. “As I was saying, Constantine and I were interrupted by Detective Delacroiux, who has some questions relating to a homicide. As I don’t feel it wise to discuss such matters out in the open, nor was I interested in the Généreux Police Department’s hospitality, I asked Detective Delacroiux if she would mind stopping by here in order to ask her questions.
To Danielle, he said, “May I get you something to drink, Detective?” Christ, she was beautiful. Long blonde hair, blue eyes lighter than a summer sky, the faintest brush of freckles across her upturned nose. And so goddamn sure of herself. She would make a dangerous enemy. He needed to find out what made her tick.
“I’m not here to socialize, Mr. Charbonnet. Do you recognize this man?” She held out several pictures and waited for him to take them.
“There’s always time to socialize with a beautiful woman.” He toasted her with his glass, then he looked down at her hand and realized what she had in mind. Clever woman. “You wouldn’t by chance be trying to get me to handle those photographs as a method of obtaining my fingerprints without my permission, would you, sugar?”
She had the grace to flush slightly, but never looked away. He loved that.
“All right, I’ll spread them on the table for you. Any reason you don’t want me to have your prints, Mr. Charbonnet?”
“No reason other than principle, Detective, and please, call me Hawk. I don’t want there to be any confusion about which Charbonnet you’re addressing.”
“Like father, like son,” she muttered, just loud enough to be heard. With a tight smile, she asked again, “What about it? Recognize him?”
Hawk looked down and saw four pictures of a painfully thin and wizened man. In two of the photographs, he was sitting near a cardboard shelter, wearing a dark watch cap and fatigue jacket, and grinning despite having no front teeth. In the third photograph, he looked clean and sober as he pushed a broom at a shelter.
She was good. He would give her that. Although she had fanned the pictures when she’d tried to hand them to him, the fourth photograph was covered by the others and had remained so when she’d spread them onto the coffee table. He used the nail of his index finger to push the other photos aside. He kept his face impassive as he stared at the fourth image, the death shot. The same man, looking tiny and shriveled, curled on his side with a knife sticking out of his back.
Hawk looked up from the photographs. “I’m sorry. I don’t recognize him. Who was he?”
She ignored his question and turned to his father. “How about you, Julian? Recognize him?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Julian replied. “I would have no reason to know someone like that. Now, I believe we have answered your questions, Detective. I’d like you to go.”
“Now, there’s no need to roll up the welcome mat,” Hawk drawled, deliberately thickening his Texas accent. The remark drew scowls from both his father and Danielle. “Do you have any other questions, Detective?”
“Did you see anyone else at the Pier when you were speaking with Constantine?” she asked.
“I saw several people. Unfortunately, I didn’t recognize any of them. I wouldn’t, you know. I’ve not spent much time here in Généreux and only arrived back in town yesterday. I was raised in England and primarily make my home in London and travel frequently between there and Houston.”
“Well, I hope you don’t plan on leaving anytime soon. Will you be staying here?” She looked around the room as if suddenly aware of her surroundings.
“Sugar, that sounds as if you might be interested in more than what I may or may not have witnessed. I’m afraid I make it a strict policy never to date cops.”
Danielle gathered the photographs in one hand and swept her hair back with the other. “Shut up, Hawk Charbonnet,” she said mildly, but he thought he caught the hint of a smile before she dipped her head and let a shimmering fall of blonde silk hide her face.
An hour later, Dani had repeated her performance at Constantine’s with similarly unspectacular results. Now she sat alone at her desk, updating the murder book and wondering what in the hell Hawk Charbonnet was doing in town. Was Julian trying to replace Peter with another son? It had been a year since the eldest Charbonnet son slammed his pick up into a live oak going ninety miles an hour. There were plenty of rumors the death wasn’t an accident. Some believed the man committed suicide after discovering some of the more unsavory aspects of his father’s business—other’s believed Peter was a more direct victim of Julian Charbonnet. Unfortunately, rumors didn’t carry any evidential weight.
She looked up when the door to the squad room opened, and was surprised to see Hawk standing there. He’d changed into a black polo and his long legs were covered in yards of faded blue denim. Delicious. Dangerous. And definitely a man with something on his mind.
“Detective Delacroiux, I wonder if I might have a word with you in private?”
“Right here is pretty private, Charbonnet,” she said, looking around the empty room. “What do you want?”
“Please, call me Hawk, and no, I don’t think this will do. It would feel too much like an official interview. What I have to tell you is off the record for now, although I understand perfectly you may choose to use it later. Have you eaten yet? If you’ll have dinner with me, I think I can add some information to your investigation.”
Dani leaned back in her chair, saying nothing, just studying the man in front of her. There was a new tenseness in his jaw and a slight tremor to his hands. He needed to get something off his chest, and he wasn’t happy about it.
“I’m going to read your rights to you before this conversation goes further. Hawk Charbonnet, you have the right to remain silent…”
They sat across from each other at her mémé Lina’s place, Delacroiux Pub, otherwise known as Della’s to the locals. Dani loved the red-checker-clothed tables and the brass trim on the bar and booths. Della’s had always been a second home. She wasn’t sure how wise it was to meet with a possible person of interest in her murder investigation away from the station, but bringing Hawk to the pub kept him on her turf. She’d have plenty of backup, if necessary.
They’d driven separately, leaving her time to wonder what this was meeting was all about. She hadn’t told him any details about the crime, only that it was a murder. It would be interesting to see what—if anything—he had to add to her meager case file.
Hawk waited to speak about business until after they’d ordered and the waitress had brought their drinks, a root beer for him and a cold glass of tea for Dani.
“This is awkward.” He looked at her, his eyes dark, full of concern. “I’m not stupid, Detective. I know there must be something other than finding Constantine and me on the Pier that causes you to be interested in speaking with me. As an attorney, I know the best advice is to shut up and say nothing.”
“Even if you’re innocent?”
Rich laughter burst from him, surprising her.
if you’re innocent, sugar. I’m also aware that the Charbonnet family has a certain reputation in Généreux and with your family in particular.”