Authors: Jana DeLeon
He glanced down at Alex, who was clutching the seat, to avoid the worst of the beating that the choppy waves were inflicting on the boat. But he knew that tomorrow, she’d feel this escape on every square inch of her body.
The raindrops stung his face as they raced across the water, and he held one hand in front of his face to block the worst of it. As soon as he rounded the corner out of the shooter’s line of sight, he slowed enough to eliminate the worst of the pounding.
Alex pulled herself up from the bottom of the boat and into the seat in front of him.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She looked back at him and nodded, then her eyes widened. “But you’re not. You’re bleeding.”
He looked down at his biceps, completely forgotten in the rush to get away. Blood stained the sleeve of his T-shirt, the rain diluting it and washing it down his arm.
“I’m fine,” he said. “The shot just nicked me.” He pointed to a storage bin at the front of the boat. “There should be some slickers in the box.”
She pulled two slickers out of the bin and handed one to him. He pulled on the slicker and lowered the hood as far as possible without blocking his vision, then glanced up at the storm and increased his speed a little. The worst was yet to come, and he wanted to be safely tucked between four walls when it hit.
The dock was a good thirty minutes away but with a slight detour, they could be safely indoors in ten minutes. When the channel turned toward the dock, he veered to the right. Alex looked back in surprise but he held up a hand and waved her off. She frowned, and Holt knew she’d already figured out where they were going. She’d been there many times before.
It was the first place they’d ever made love.
Holt shook his head to clear his mind of such thoughts. It did no good to dwell on a past that had no future.
As he pulled up to the dock in front of his cabin, the storm hit full force. Lightning flashed from the sky and struck the earth with such force that the ground trembled. The wind whipped across the bayou so hard it set him off balance as he jumped onto the pier. He grabbed a pylon to steady himself before he fell off the pier and into the tumultuous bayou water, then reached down to help Alex out of the boat.
They ran to the cabin, hunched over in an attempt to hurry through the harsh winds. Holt unlocked the door to the cabin and the wind flung the door open, banging it against the inside wall. The wind swept into the cabin, scattering paper from the kitchen table.
Alex raced inside and he pushed the door shut and secured the dead bolt. “Stay here,” he told her and quickly checked the bedroom and bathroom of the tiny cabin for any unwelcome visitors. There was no chance the shooter could have beaten them here, but the shooter might not be working alone.
Alex stood in the middle of the room that served as kitchen, dining and living area, her arms crossed over her chest. She was soaking wet from head to toe, and still she managed to be the most beautiful woman he’d ever laid eyes on.
“Is everything okay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, and handed her one of the clean towels he’d taken from the bathroom. “I can offer you sweats and a T-shirt. They’ll be too big, but you should get out of those wet clothes before you get sick.”
Alex looked out the window and bit her lower lip. He knew what she’d been hoping for—that he would drive her to Sarah’s house—but one look at the raging storm outside and even Alex had to admit that it wasn’t safe to drive right now.
“That’s fine,” she said finally.
“The worst will probably blow over in an hour or so. You’re welcome to take a hot shower. I’m going to fix some sandwiches.”
Alex stared at him a moment, then blurted out, “Someone was shooting at us. You got hit by a bullet. Are you even going to mention that?”
Holt frowned. “I wasn’t planning on it. At least not until I have an idea on the matter.”
Alex shook her head. “Well, at least let me dress that wound while you try to formulate a good idea about someone trying to kill us.”
Holt wiped the blood away from the wound on his biceps and realized it was a bit deeper than he’d thought. He nodded to Alex and motioned her into the bathroom.
He’d been back in the cabin only a few weeks, but basic supplies were the first thing he’d acquired. Probably his military training at work. He pulled peroxide and bandages from a linen cabinet and placed them on the counter while Alex grabbed cotton swabs from a jar.
She soaked one of the swabs in peroxide and gently cleaned the wound. “It looks like it just grazed you,” she said. “Do you have any antibacterial cream?”
He pointed to the top shelf in the cabinet.
She put a clean cotton swab over the wound. “Hold this,” she said as she reached for the cream. Then, she pulled his fingers away from the wound. “I think it’s stopped bleeding.” She squeezed a small amount of cream onto her finger and applied it to the wound, then covered the entire area with a large bandage. “Make sure you change this twice a day. The last thing you want is an infection.”
“I know,” Holt said, and smiled.
“Oh.” She blushed. “That advice must sound stupid to someone who’s been at war. I’m sure you’re well versed on all the medical risks associated with a bullet wound.”
“It’s good advice.” He stepped closer to her, knowing what he was about to do was a really bad idea, but unable to come up with one good reason not to.
He pulled her close to him in one sudden motion that made her gasp. Before he could change his mind, he lowered his lips to hers.
Her lips were soft, as he’d remembered, but her body was different, better. The curves that pressed against him screamed
and his body responded in kind. It was as if ten years had melted away and they were again teenagers who’d skipped class to spend time alone at the cabin.
Immediately she pushed back and stared at him, her eyes wide. “I think I’ll wait in the truck,” she said as she whirled around and fled the bathroom.
“It’s not safe out there,” he said, following her into the living area.
“It’s safer than being in here.” She slipped out the front door and back into the raging storm.
* * *
LEX SLAMMED THE TRUCK DOOR
and crossed her arms, shivering.
she chided herself as she stared into the downpour.
You’re running like a teenager.
But she couldn’t shake the unnerved feeling she had from the kiss. Her skin was still on fire everywhere Holt’s body had made contact with hers. Her pulse raced and she felt as if it would leap from her chest. If asked, she’d swear she’d been less stressed when someone was shooting at her.
Minutes later Holt slid into the truck, fully dressed and wearing a rain slicker. He handed Alex a blanket and started the truck without even a glance in her direction. Alex cast a sideways look at him, trying to gauge his mood. The anger she expected to see wasn’t there. Instead, he looked pensive and worried.
She sighed, annoyed with herself.
Her niece was missing and Holt had been shot, but here she was, worrying that he was busy dwelling on her rejection of him. What an ego she’d developed as an adult.
Holt made the short drive in complete silence, and Alex wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved that he wasn’t going to talk about the obvious issues that still lingered between them. She finally settled on relieved, already having entirely too much to process for the day.
He pulled up to the curb of Sarah’s house and walked around to open her door.
“I’ll look into some things in the morning,” he said. “Make sure the house is locked up tight.”
She nodded and hurried up the walk to the house, afraid to say a word lest things she didn’t want to address came falling out. She slipped inside the house, locked the door and drew the dead bolt. Lifting a slat of the miniblinds, she peered out the front window into the storm and watched as the taillights of Holt’s truck faded into the distance.
She, of all people, had the skill set to handle conflict. From now on she’d concentrate only on finding Erika. When she was safely back in New Orleans, she’d have plenty of time to address her apparently unresolved feelings for Holt Chamberlain.
* * *
LEX WALKED OUT OF
Sarah’s guest bathroom, still toasty from the steaming hot shower she’d taken. Sarah was perched on the edge of the bed, anxiously awaiting a recount of the day’s events, and she jumped up when Alex exited the bathroom.
“I made gumbo,” Sarah said. “Too nervous to rest, I guess, and it’s a good thing, since you showed up looking like a drowned rat. Are you okay? Do you need warmer clothes?”
Alex placed one hand on Sarah’s arm. “I’m fine. Take a deep breath. We’re going to go downstairs and fix two bowls of your fabulous gumbo, and I’m going to tell you everything.”
Sarah blew out a breath. “I know you are. I’m sorry, Alex. I’m just so jumpy.”
Alex gave her cousin a hug. “I know, honey. You have every right to be, but we’re going to fix this. We’re going to find Erika.”
Sarah gave her a small smile and nodded. “I trust you. You know I trust you. All our lives, you’ve always been the one to fix things. It’s just that this is so much bigger than anything else.”
Alex placed one arm around her cousin’s shoulders and pulled her out of the room and into the kitchen. “So we’ll work harder.”
They fixed bowls of gumbo and sat at the small table in the breakfast nook. Alex recounted to Sarah how they found the dock and then the cabin. She described what they’d found in the cabin, leaving no detail out of her story. The truth was scary, but Sarah deserved to know everything.
“As we were leaving,” Alex said, “a jar on one of the shelves over the door fell right in front of us.”
Sarah’s eyes widened. “How?”
“I don’t know and don’t even want to guess.” Alex took a deep breath. “There was a pink barrette inside the jar. Just like the ones Erika was wearing.”
Sarah sucked in a breath. “Oh, my God. My poor baby. She’s there with that witch woman. I knew it. I told you there was no other explanation.”
“It looks suspicious,” Alex said, trying to keep her cousin from getting worked up to the point of uselessness. “We followed a trail away from the cabin until the storm hit, and then we had to turn back. I’m sorry, but the barrette is all we found.”
Sarah stared down into her gumbo for a couple of seconds, then frowned. “That’s it? Then why did Holt bring you home in his truck? Why didn’t you return to the dock and get your car?”
“Holt docked at his cabin to get us out of the storm. We were too deep in the swamp to beat it.”
Sarah narrowed her eyes at Alex. “You’re not telling me something. I know you. You’re not lying, but you’re leaving something out.”
Alex sighed. “Someone shot at us as we were leaving the bank of the island. One of the bullets grazed Holt’s arm, but he’s fine.”
Sarah jumped up from the table, her eyes wide with fear. “Someone tried to kill you? You walked in my house, took a shower and sat here eating gumbo knowing that someone tried to kill you just hours before? Are you sure I’m the one with mental problems?”
“What do you want me to tell you—that I’m moving through a logical, rational routine hoping to make sense of it all? Hoping that it will prevent me from breaking down at a time when you need me to be a rock?”
Sarah slid back into her chair and Alex reached across the table to cover her cousin’s hand with her own.
“I’m scared, Sarah. Really scared. When we were trying to get away, I didn’t have much time to think about it, but afterward…well, let’s just say I’m not the rock you think I am.”
Alex’s mind flashed back to Holt’s cabin. His hard, muscular body pressed against her. The touch of his lips on hers. The heat between them that wasn’t coming just from their contact.
A killer and Holt Chamberlain.
She wasn’t sure which scared her more.
Holt stepped into the sheriff’s office the next morning, still cursing himself for the day before. The whole thing had been one giant mistake, beginning with going to that island and ending with kissing Alex. But if he was going to be honest with himself, he’d do it all over again if he had to. Finding Erika was a priority. Kissing Alex wasn’t nearly as important as finding a missing child, but the urgency he’d felt when he kissed her in the cabin the day before had been no less than that he’d felt when fleeing the shooter.
Which was rather appropriate when he considered that loving Alex was just as deadly as being shot. He hadn’t even been in her company for a full day, and he’d already made a move on her. Ten years in the desert and it had all been a waste of time.
Since he was early, he started a pot of coffee and headed to his office. He needed to do some research on the island. With any luck, he’d be able to find out more about the old woman who lived there. Even if she’d been born in the bayou with no hospital records, the land had to be deeded to someone. He also needed to pull all the files from the cases thirty-six years ago.
He hadn’t even been born when the girls went missing, but the story had been passed down through generations of families in Vodoun. The police would have investigated the old woman back then. Maybe he’d be able to find something in the old files that he could use. Some clue to help him find Erika.
He turned on the computer and began a search of the land records. By the time he’d finished his first cup of coffee, he had his answer. The name on the deed was Mathilde Tregre. He let himself into the storage room, pulled the boxes from the old kidnappings and carted them back to his office. The interview with the woman was in the first box.
The woman wasn’t listed as Mathilde or Tregre. She’d claimed her name was t’Mat. That made sense, given the old custom of naming a daughter after her mother and using the
in front of the name or shortened name to mean “little.” In this case, “Little Mathilde.” Holt poured himself another cup of coffee and settled into his chair to read over the interview.