Chapter One: Fleeing the Storm

Grace Comstock lifted her head.

She stepped to the bedroom doorway and tensed, waiting for someone to walk into the house. Nothing happened, but that didn’t mean she could dawdle.

Wes Crain said he wouldn’t be home until tomorrow. By then she’d be finished clearing out her sister’s things and gone, exactly as he’d asked. With her work schedule, this was the only day she could come. Since he didn’t know she was in his house, though, she might be trespassing.

She was here now and had to stop overreacting to the slightest sound. If she gave herself a heart attack, who would look after her orphaned niece?

A pile of sweaters topped off the carryon bag, and her gaze fell on the hanger with the beautiful purple gown her sister had worn to the Grammys last year. She’d looked as fabulous as any of the nominees, too, but Melanie would never again wear this dress.

Grace grabbed a tissue from the bedside table, blotted her eyes, and stared at the shimmering gown. Would she herself ever wear something this fancy?

Nope. She hooked the hanger on the rod but didn’t remove her hand. Katie might one day want to wear her mother’s dress, and Grace hesitated.

Stop dithering. Make a decision and leave. Collect Katie from the sitter and cry later.

She folded the dress into the carryon bag. The sound of a door closing jerked her gaze toward the hall. Her pulse spiked as male voices spilled into the silence. She’d dawdled too long. Sneaky Wes Crain, Mr. Touchy-feely, had just arrived home early.

Tonight, she would have the advantage of taking him by surprise. Maybe he’d be so shocked to see her he’d keep his hands to himself. She made a final sweep of the bureau contents, hefted the packed bag, and walked toward the living room.

The music entrepreneur flopped in a leather armchair behind a monstrous glass and driftwood coffee table. The moment she entered the living room, a tall, blond chap standing behind the couch locked her in a cold stare. Grace suppressed a shiver and kept walking, pretending no surprise. Crain hadn’t had the best publicity since his arrest a few months ago, and this Viking type could definitely be his new bodyguard.

She stopped in front of the coffee table. “You’ll be glad to know I’ve collected all my sister’s things and emptied her rooms.”

The tumbler in Crain’s hand jerked, and the contents splashed over his shirt. “What are you doing here?”

Her stomach flipped like a fillet of fish in a well-greased skillet. You’ve already explained. Leave.

She set his house key on the coffee table and looped the lanyard with her keyring over her head again. “There’s Melanie’s key.”

He set his glass on the table and staggered to his feet, brushing the spill from his tropical-print shirt. “Why didn’t you tell me you had a key?”

“Because I didn’t have it when we last spoke.” She squeezed the strap of the shoulder bag. “The police only recently gave me her things from the wreck.” The terrible, fatal car wreck.

“You still should have told me.” Crain pursed his mouth.

“Why? Would you have changed the locks?”

“Probably not.” Crain laughed, the sound grating her nerves.

“You don’t have to change anything now.” She glanced toward the front door but resigned herself to hearing Crain out. At least with the bodyguard around, he wouldn’t paw her, right?

Crain stepped closer. “I trusted Melanie. You’re probably like her that way, too.”

Grace forced a smile. “You’re right. I only took what belonged to her.”

“But you’re sure you got everything?” he asked.

“What’s left can be tossed.” She held her breath against the smell of bourbon on his breath.

He straightened the overnight bag’s strap on her shoulder, his hand brushing her bare neck. “Let’s go check.”

“I’ve already checked.” She only got in two steps to the door, though, before the bodyguard wrapped his thick fingers around her arm, halting her as effectively as an anchor.

Should she resist or go along and make them happy? She could answer any questions now and never have to worry about the man contacting her again. Wasn’t that what she wanted?

* * *

Jack Guidry took in the mangy yard and climbed the steps of the two-story house listed on his bail document. A search for a doorbell turned up empty. He slapped the door knocker and rapped his knuckles. “Hello, anyone home? Need a signature for a delivery.”

The bail skip who resided here had been arrested for assault and robbery. Jack braced himself for possible violence. This takedown could go either way. Like his brother, Hal, standing in the yard below, he carried backup firepower.

The A/C in the closest downstairs windows fluttered the shrubs underneath. Above that in the glass, a curtain twitched. Jack knocked again and stepped to one side.

For some reason hordes of criminals were skipping their court dates this September, giving him and his brothers’ Big Easy Bounty Hunters a truckload of business. Could be the heat. Could be the constant threat of hurricanes. Could be some misalignment of the stars. But nothing excused criminal behavior.

“He’s supposed to be home according to my contact.” Hal stood behind him on the middle riser of the front steps.

Jack strode to the edge of the porch. A weedy strip led to the back yard where a rusted car sat on blocks. Behind that, a chain link fence surrounded the property, low enough to hurdle. “Check the other side. He might do a runner out the back.”

Hal disappeared around the opposite side and yelled, “I see him.”

By the time Jack reached the back fence, a skinny man in a red T-shirt was fleeing across the neighbor’s back yard.

“Stop,” Jack hollered. “Don’t make this hard.”

Hal vaulted the chain link fence. The skip stumbled over a clump of grass and charged through a wooden side gate.

The neighbor lady opened her back screen door.

“Sorry to disturb you.” Jack made a mat of the honeysuckle vines to cushion his palms and hoisted himself over. He landed on his feet, saluted the woman staring at him, and took off after Hal.

His brother skidded to a halt ahead of him, and Jack almost slammed into him. Their fugitive disappeared through a tall wooden gate leading to the parallel street, but he’d roused the chained watchdog.

Jack liked dogs fine, but not ones with sharp teeth or bad attitudes. “Charge him. If he’s confused, he won’t lunge.”

The two of them barreled down the weedy strip. The mutt stopped barking, and they whipped past the beast and through the gate, racing across the neighbor’s yard to the sidewalk.

“Red shirt.” Hal pointed to the right and took off.

Three blocks later, they cornered the skip next to a drugstore dumpster. Hal pinned the guy’s arms behind him. After Jack clamped on the cuffs, he flashed his warrant and read a name.

“That’s not my name,” the skip shouted.

“Then you must have gotten a face implant.” Jack showed him his booking photo. “You’re under arrest.”

The fugitive fought back, but they got him in the car and delivered to central lockup before sunset. An hour later, Jack slid to a stop behind the big house off Esplanade Avenue they called home.

Hal opened his door. “That takedown was some tense, and I could sure use a brew.”

“Me, too.” Jack stepped onto the gravel drive and closed the SUV’s door. His phone rang, and he fished the device from a pocket.

“I need to ask a favor,” the gruff voice he knew well halted him in the shade of the big oak next to the back porch.

“Anything.” Jack sank onto the steps, ready to listen to what Martin Howell, his bondsman had to say. “What’s the word?”

“I need you to keep an eye on a potential skip so you can nab him as soon as he’s a no-show. It was a mistake to post bail for him.”

Jack tugged the elastic from his ponytail. This didn’t sound right. “You want me to do this before he even skips?”

“I know it’s irregular, but my gut tells me he’s going to flee.”

“Who is it?”

“Name of Wes Crain.” Martin cleared his throat. “You know, the music promoter?”

“No.” Jack had never heard of the man.

“He was arrested after a barroom brawl along with band members who were his clients,” Martin said. “Apparently, he’s well known enough that the judge set the bond high. Your bounty would be good.”

“The money’s not an issue. If you need me to do this, I will.” He owed Martin his life. No way would he refuse. “Give me his location.”

Jack plugged the address into his phone map. His bondsman said goodbye, and he enlarged the area shown on his screen.

The lower Garden District hugged the edge of the downtown concrete canyons. An entrance ramp to the Mississippi River bridge cut through the area, creating a checkerboard of commercial properties, abandoned or derelict properties, and huge early-nineteenth-century mansions. Crain must live in one of these, throwing parties for his clients and the other beautiful people, but all sorts of people would be driving through his neighborhood.

He stood and went into the house, lifted the barking dachshund, and went in search of his older brother. Because of medical issues Kurt ran the bail recovery business office from the house and didn’t go out to apprehend the fugitives Martin assigned.

“Got a minute?” Jack explained what he needed and left. He wasn’t lying when he’d told Hal he needed a brew, but relaxing would have to wait a little longer.

After a short drive though the central business district, Jack parked in the shadows down the block from the music man’s mansion. He grabbed the GPS unit from the glove compartment and got out, careful to avoid the spikes of a huge palmetto sticking through the wrought iron fence. Honeysuckle grew nearby, its sweet scent filling the humid evening air. The hum of traffic on the bridge ramp above provided background white noise, but he still shut his door with care.

He scanned the empty street and then focused on Crain’s large, columned mansion. A Cadillac sat in the semicircular driveway curving through the front yard. He checked the license plate against the one Kurt had texted while he’d been on the way.

Bingo! This was the vehicle he wanted.

A dark-haired woman, probably in her late twenties, came out the mansion’s door with a big shoulder bag and headed to the compact four-door Chevy on the curb.

Jack rested the tracker unit on his thigh and waited in the shadows for her to leave.

A dirty, beat-up sedan cruised past and stopped. A scruffy hippie type burst from the passenger side, rushing toward the woman with a hand in his pocket.

Well, shit. He was going to have to play hero.

The junkie thrust his pocket forward, the muzzle of a gun outlined against the material. He reached for the shoulder bag with his other hand.

Jack put on a burst of speed to cross the street. He came alongside the woman, took in the kid’s hand in his pocket. The “supposed” muzzle of the weapon made too big an impression against the fabric for a handgun small enough to fit there, but he would play along for now. “Let me see your gun.”

Right on cue, the kid pointed his pocket at Jack. “You can give me yo’ money, too.”

“Hey, I know you, don’t I?” Jack frowned as if searching his memory and eased a hand into his own pocket for the loose cash he always carried. “What would your grandma think if she saw you robbing someone right now?”

The junkie stared, his mouth hanging open. His extended hand dropped to his side, but with his other, he held the gun steady. Aimed right at Jack’s heart. “That’s who I need the money for. Her meds, ya know. She got to have her meds.”

“Well, why didn’t you say so?”

Confusion flashed across the kid’s sweaty face. His leg jittered, though, and he checked over his shoulder at the running car. “I did.”

Jack eased in front of the woman and tossed forty dollars to the ground. “There should be enough money there, but first I want to see your gun on the sidewalk.”

The mugger blurted, “I don’t have no gun.”

Exactly. “You’ve got something. Put it down.”

The addict tossed a glass bottle onto the lawn and scooped up the bills.

“Go get grandma’s meds and stay away from drugs,” Jack called.

“I don’t do drugs.” The kid raced back to the open car door so fast his sneakers squealed.

The auto door slammed. Smoky exhaust cleared from the humid air, leaving behind the sour taste of fear. The woman turned vivid blue eyes on him and began to shake.

He draped an arm around her waist, touching only enough to let her know someone shared her trauma. Crime victims usually needed a few seconds to recover, right?

She swiped at her eyes and stepped away. “I’m fine.”

An automatic response. Even with the fading twilight, he could see she was anything but as she gulped air and tugged at the hem of her top. “W-why didn’t you arrest him?”

Jack propped his hands on his hips, telling himself he stood too close but not moving. “I’m not a police officer.”

Any longer.

But he still ran toward trouble instead of away.

The woman’s winged dark brows pulled together. “You have a death wish?”

“I’ve seen the fake gun in the pocket trick a few times.” He didn’t know where she headed, but he didn’t want her to arrive after dark if for no other reason than to avoid a chance she’d meet another mugger. He lifted his chin toward the Chevy. “That your car?”

She nodded and took keys from a purse side pocket. Taillights flashed.

Jack walked her to her car and jammed his hands in his pockets. “I’ll wait until you lock your doors. Take care driving home.”