Authors: Delilah Devlin
New York Boston
To my daughter, Kelly, and my sister, Elle James, who dared to take a wild airboat ride with me in the bayou and shared an even wilder time in New Orleans. If only I could remember the details…
The sound was faint and haunting, entering his dreams like a distant echo. A metallic tinkling drifting closer, coming and going, like tiny golden bells worn on a waving arm.
Boone Benoit awoke in a sweat. He lay still for a moment, searching the darkness around him, remembering the layout of the furniture in his bedroom, but finding no new shadows to cause alarm.
But he heard the tinkling in the distance and slipped out of bed. Opening the French doors that led onto the balcony, he stepped out into the humid night air and listened.
He must have imagined the sound. Or maybe the gardeners had installed wind chimes, and they’d stirred in a breeze. Although, right this moment, the thick bayou air was perfectly still.
Another door opened farther down the balcony. From the corner of his eye, Boone saw his right-hand man, Sergei Gun, step outside.
“You okay, boss?”
“I’m fine, Serge. Just thought I heard something.”
“Want me to have the guards take a look around the grounds?”
He began to shake his head. His unease at being back was clearly playing with his head, and he wasn’t happy about it. He’d only been back a day, but in Bayou Vert, news traveled faster than CNN across backyard fences. For all he knew, someone might be there in the dark, staring down the barrel of a rifle. “Yeah, have them make a round. And find out if someone put up wind chimes.”
Serge’s head canted.
He probably wanted to ask why, but knew Boone well enough to refrain. Boone and those closest to him had secrets they all kept close to the chest. For good reason.
“What do you want them to do if they find chimes?”
“Shoot ’em,” Boone said with a grim smile.
Serge’s teeth gleamed in the shadows. “Get some sleep, boss.”
Boone stepped back inside and lay down on the bed, closing his eyes and trying to relax, but he strained to hear the telltale sound—golden bells on a bracelet, tinkling at the end of a pale arm.
Dragging in a deep breath, he wondered if he was ready for this. Ready to return to his childhood home. Ready to face his past and the terrible thing that had happened here.
Likely, the sound had been only a dream, dredged up by his own feelings of guilt. A blood-soaked memory. Boone acknowledged the guilt. Accepted it. But now was the time to face the part he’d played. Dead calm settled around him and he drifted off into an uneasy sleep.
* * *
Clotille Floret waved a lazy hand at a fly buzzing, although even that felt like too much effort in the stifling heat. She went back to washing down small bistro tables and chairs outside the restaurant, not that anyone in their right mind would want to sit outside on a day like today.
Still, Mae insisted. Didn’t matter what the season was, things had to be done in a certain order. And since she was the one signing Tilly’s paychecks, Tilly didn’t bother arguing. It wasn’t like Tilly had anything better to do. Life in the bayou was unchanging—summers even more so. There was no Walmart, no movie theater, no entertainments to speak of other than the restaurant and Tater Cribb’s tiny bar, which boasted four concrete-block walls, AC that worked most of the time, and a jukebox that played hits from the eighties since he’d never bothered updating the selection. Tilly knew every tune by heart.
Like a Southern-fried Brigadoon, this seedy little bayou town had been stuck on a single track. Unmoving and morose. After her mother had died and her aunt and uncle had moved away, Tilly had been marooned here, trying to make ends meet to set things right for her brother. Only her efforts were too little and too late.
Sweat trickled from her brow into her eye, and she swiped it away with the back of her hand. She’d dawdled outside long enough. A string of chores awaited her inside.
The sound of an automobile approaching drew her attention, and she watched a dark limo slide down Main Street, dark windows hiding the passenger, the engine a low, contained rumble. Unease shivered through her, tightening her belly. The day everyone in town had sworn would never come had arrived.
As the vehicle drew near, she couldn’t help but pull down the edges of her Daisy Dukes. Somehow, the thought of flashing her ass cheeks to the man who rode by in that impossibly luxurious black Bentley seemed a little too stereotypically trashy. Never mind that was how she earned her best tips.
The car’s appearance in Bayou Vert was noteworthy enough that LeRoy Duhon stepped out of his bait shop. And Cletus Guidry wiped a greasy rag as he strode from the bay of his auto repair shop to watch. He was likely drooling. Fat chance he’d even get to change the oil on the sleek beauty. Up and down the short block, townsfolk gathered on the sidewalk. A presidential candidate on a baby-kissing campaign tour couldn’t have gotten more attention.
The only person who didn’t come outside was Tilly’s boss, Mae Baillio. Mae stood inside the restaurant, watching through the screened windows. Her dark hands folded over her middle, and her gaze followed the car like it was a hearse, leading the way to the graveyard.
Boone Benoit’s return might have felt like that to her. Tante Mae had known the young Boone, remembered the scandal all too well. She’d been working for Tilly’s aunt at the time.
Even for Tilly, the slow procession felt…ominous. She’d been a tween when the tragedy struck, and although she’d cried buckets of tears in the days after, she’d recovered, showing the resilience of a child. Not so, the rest of her family. They’d worn the pain like open wounds, never letting them heal. Something she hadn’t understood until she’d found the little treasure box.
She turned her back and walked into the restaurant, striding up beside Mae as the car slid out of sight.
“Man’s got brass balls,” Mae whispered, her voice hoarse.
Tilly shivered, wondering if everyone felt like she did. Like the ground would begin to shiver and shake before opening up a huge jagged gash to swallow the entire town.
Change was coming. Wasn’t something anyone in the bayou was likely to embrace. Hurricanes came and went, flattening buildings then sweeping them out on rising tides. The town took Nature’s violence all in stride. But this was different. Darker. A reminder of the scar left on their collective souls.
“Thought for sure he was only prettyin’ up his house to sell it,” Tilly said softly, placing a hand on Mae’s tense shoulder.
“Saw it in the cups. He be here to stir up trouble.”
Although Tilly didn’t believe in the portents the older woman read in her tea leaves, she couldn’t shake the thought Boone Benoit was back for justice. Not something she could voice aloud, because most folks thought he’d escaped a rightful lynching.
Mae shook off her hand and crossed stiff-legged to the corkboard, where yet another list of jobs opening at the plantation had been tacked just that morning. As often as Boone Benoit’s foreman put up the notice, Mae tore it down and wadded it in her fist. The crisp page crackled as her brown fingers balled it tight.
Not that Tilly had needed more than a quick glance when the large, muscled foreman sauntered inside day after day to post yet another notice. The position that made her uneasy was still there. Still open.
She didn’t dare apply. Not just because everyone she knew would be appalled. The secret she’d kept bottled inside was too near the surface of her emotions to risk being anywhere near Boone Benoit.
And yet, how could she not? The money from her cashed-in 401(k) was gone. Her house sold. The only way she could rescue Denny from the group home that so frightened him was a better-paying job. Shaking her ass for the male customers at Mae’s Cafe wouldn’t get her what she needed, and that left her with only one alternative.
“Saw you lookin’ at da board,” Mae said, her dark eyes cold and narrowed. “You know you’re only buyin’ trouble. You should go back to da city. Can’t take care of Denny if you don’ take care of yourself first.”
“Denny could never live in the city.” The thought saddened her. Denny wasn’t quite right. Moving him with her to the city simply wasn’t an option.
“Maybe you should just let him go.”
Tilly shook her head. It was something she had considered, although she was too ashamed to admit it.
The bell above the restaurant’s door tinkled.
Tilly gave Mae a quick, tight smile, and then pasted on a bigger one as she turned. Her lips froze. “Oh. Hey there, Leon.”
Sheriff Leon Fournier tilted his head, and his gaze skimmed quickly over her thin tank only to linger on her long, bare legs. “Nice to see you, Tilly.”
Tilly rolled her eyes. “Answer’s still no. Want your coffee with cream?”
“Ain’t everything better with cream?”
She ignored his amused drawl, skirting past him without touching. Once behind the counter, she breathed easier and busied herself pouring coffee into a Styrofoam cup, hoping he’d take the hint he should take the coffee with him as he left.
Leon leaned a hip against the counter and pointed toward the window. “You see Benoit skate through town like he owned it?”
Tilly arched a brow. “Doesn’t he? Half the men not out shrimpin’ are workin’ on his place.”
“Thought he was gonna sell it.”
“Maybe he’s gonna meet a Realtor there,” Tilly mused, hoping her statement was true.
Leon’s lips pursed. “Haven’t seen it go up on any of the real estate websites.”
She arched a taunting brow. “You know how to use the Internet?”
His eyes narrowed. “Girl, what you got against me?”
“Not a girl, Leon.” Her fingers wrapped around the edge of the counter. “And maybe I don’t like bein’ stripped every time you look at me.”
“Cain’t help it,” he said, smiling. “I’m a man. Somethin’ sweet as you comes back to town…Mmm-mm…” He shook his head and gave her another look.
A leering look that made her annoyed. There was no denying he was a handsome man with his thick chestnut hair, broad chest, and dark uniform. Too bad he knew it. “Here’s your coffee,” she said, plunking it down on the counter. “You have a nice day, Sheriff.”
But Leon didn’t take the hint and instead settled on a stool. He opened the lid and silently reached out his hand to Mae, who handed him two sugar packets with a stern look.
“Didn’t think you liked sweet. Just spicy,” Tilly said. “Isn’t that what you told me yesterday when you came by for a cup of Mae’s shrimp gumbo?”
“I can like both, sweetheart. ’Specially when it’s served just right.”
She leaned over the counter, moving into his space.
His eyelids dipped, and by the flare of his nostrils, he drew in her scent.
“When are you gonna give up?” she said, dropping her voice. “I’m not interested.”
He laughed. “Sugar, I’m the best you’re gonna get in this town.”
Fingers tense, she rubbed her rag near his cup, pushing it toward the edge of the counter.
But he caught the cup before it toppled into his lap. “If you’d burned me, I might have had to arrest you for assaultin’ an officer of the law.” His eyebrows waggled up and down and a grin stretched. “You want a little time in lockup? That make things easier for you?”
This time, she laughed and shook her head. “Leon, were you always such a lech?”
He chuckled and slid off the stool.
The bell tinkled again.
The large-muscled construction foreman from Maison Plaisir strode in, his glance going to the sheriff, to whom he gave a nod. Then his gaze casually slid to Tilly.
“The best I’m gonna get, huh?” she murmured, straightening from the counter. To the foreman, she said, “Can I get you somethin’, Mr. Jones?”
The foreman drew a paper from his back pocket, folded once.
Without glancing down, she knew the paper was another notice. “When are you gonna give up?” she chided in a friendly tone. “Mae’s just gonna put it in the trash again.”
His mouth twitched. “Position’s still open, Miss Floret.” He handed the paper directly to Tilly, gave a nod to Leon, then left.
Her mind went blank. He wanted her to apply?
“What’s he talkin’ about, Tilly?” Leon stared.
Ignoring the suspicion in his voice, she looked down at the sheet and the job highlighted in yellow at the top.
The salary listed right below was higher than the amount had been yesterday. Too high to ignore. With that much extra cash, she could afford to rent a place for her and Denny in no time.
“You’re not thinkin’ about workin’ out there,” Leon whispered. “It’s different with the men. No female in her right mind would go there. Especially not someone like you.”
“Someone like me?” she said, her back stiffening.
“Well, pretty. Young. Especially if
back for a while.”
“Doesn’t appear there’s been any more trouble around Boone Benoit. He’s more than redeemed himself.”
The sheriff’s lips turned into a sneer. “Spendin’ time in the navy as a SEAL only means he’s learned more efficient ways to kill.”
“He was never prosecuted,” she said, feeling stubbornness tighten her grip on the paper.
“Only ’cause his daddy made everything disappear and my daddy was willin’ to help.”
Tilly jutted her chin. “Both your daddies should have let the law run its course. He might have been acquitted.” Her gaze met his and held.
Leon’s doubtful expression only echoed the prevailing sentiment. Boone Benoit had beaten a murder rap.
“Don’t do it, Tilly.”
“You’re not the boss of me. Think I want to work here forever?”
“You’re a smart girl. Got yourself an education.” His hand waved at the folded paper. “You can do more than this.”
Her pulse pounded. “Think I haven’t tried? I can’t work on a boat. This town doesn’t have any other jobs I can get hired for besides waitin’ tables. Who around here runnin’ a family business wants to hire me? No one’s wife or mother would stand for it.”
“Mae’s gettin’ on in age. Maybe you could take over someday.”
“And in the meantime…” She glanced down at her frayed shorts, and a pang shot through her gut. “I used to wear Donna Karan and Jimmy Choos.”
“No need to get snooty.”
“I’m not. Just makin’ a point. If this,” she said, waving the sheet, “is my only opportunity, I have to take it.”