Uneasy In New Orleans Excerpt

Read the prologue and first chapter in UNEASY IN NEW ORLEANS:

PROLOGUE

Uneasy in New OrleansThat impossible girl, Finnigan Jones, paid absolutely no attention to him. He sparkled. He glimmered. He shimmered. He even swayed in front of her, waving his arms above his head like a traffic cop. Nothing. She didn’t blink an eye.

Finn, uber-focused while concocting an original barbecue sauce in her culinary class couldn’t see a perfectly good apparition right in front of her. Even in the high-ceilinged room with dazzling sunshine bouncing off the gleaming fixtures through the tall windows.

Mon Dieu. What was a ghost supposed to do?

John Michael Winters, once-upon-a-time New Orleans chef extraordinaire, groaned. Out of all the people in this class, he selected Finn to mentor because she was going to be a special chef. He knew these things. She was the best student, of course, but if she couldn’t see him…?

From a stainless steel food shelf, he plucked a tamarind pod, drifted back in front of her and nudged it against her selected pile of ingredients.

Her eyes fluttered and she frowned. She pried open the brown pod and sniffed. Wrinkling her cute little nose, she retrieved a bit of the pulp from inside and took a tiny taste. “Hmm…Distinctive flavor,” she murmured. “Sweet and sour, but, um, I really, really don’t remember picking it up for my sauce.”

She stole a quick peek around the class, as if anyone else besides him would have put the unusual spice in front of her. Taking one more shot at grabbing her notice, John Michael did his best dance step, one he’d been well known for in his alive days—two shuffles left, two shuffles right, then a complete swirl and a deep bow. After his magnificent performance, he launched away and disappeared from her view.

“Oh, my God,” she whispered, her eyes wide. She placed a shaking hand over her heart. “I’m seeing ghosts. I knew I shouldn’t have had that second Peach Bellini daiquiri last night.”

He had her attention now.

When the class finished, Finn, both figuratively and literally, exchanged her perfectly wonderful chef hat for a perfectly awful neon pink cap sporting the logo Explore NOLA Tours. She dashed from the classroom. She could at least have thanked him for the tamarind. It would earn her barbecue sauce an A plus in Soups, Starches and Sauces. Oh, well. Kids these days. He’d have to catch her on the flipside.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Uneasy in New OrleansWas that a dead body?

Drawing a ragged breath, Finn Jones blinked hard to clear her vision.

She wanted to blame her eyesight, the harsh sunlight or the glare off the asphalt pavement. She even wanted to blame her cheap, lousy-ass sunglasses. None of it worked.

She could still see it.

Her heart sped up. Perspiration trickled between her boobs. Gulping, she swallowed her dread. In the midst of conducting a walking tour through the French Quarter with eight, honest-to-God paying customers, she didn’t dare let them know panic was about to take her away like an alien abduction.

She darted a glance in their direction. Busy talking about how hungry they were and whether the hotdogs from the Lucky Dog vendor nearby were any good, they didn’t notice.

How could they be so clueless? How could they not see it?

She’d seen dead bodies before—in Uncle Ed’s funeral home. Until now, she’d never seen one in its natural state. Those other earthly remains had been dead for several days and embalmed. They were laid out nice and neat, appropriate wax-like figures, in a satin-lined coffin at Big Ed Finnigan’s Funeral Parlor and House of Rest.

Corralling her meandering thoughts, Finn moved her sunglasses to the top of her head. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath and then opened them again. Her throat narrowed and she swallowed around a huge lump. From her position next to the two-story building, he—and she was sure it was a man—looked pale, stiff and decidedly dead. The body slumped across the gallery railing on the second story of the converted apartment building, one arm dangling over the side. Dear. God. And this, after seeing a ghost in class earlier.

On a muggy summer day when dead bodies had no business scaring the bejesus out of her, the corpse draped above her head like Spanish moss looked nothing like any she’d seen at a funeral.

She took another covert look, and then peeked at her tourists. Their interest was no longer on lunch. They were staring at her, no doubt wondering why she was sweating like a teenage boy on his first date.

Finn diverted their attention away from her by pointing across the alley to a fountain, hoping the words coming out of her mouth made sense. Pray God they noticed nothing out of the ordinary.

Cadavers weren’t on her itinerary of historical, interesting sights in New Orleans. Although the French Quarter boasted plenty of bars and great restaurants, intriguing characters and architecture unseen anywhere else, tourists didn’t generally come to see dead people. At least she hoped not. Her mind raced with what to do next.

“What is that up there?”

Finn groaned. The slender young woman, half of a honeymooning couple from Atlanta, had her gaze fixed on the gallery where the body drooped, horrifyingly dead to anyone with half a brain. It appeared the bride had all of hers.

“A lovely example of cast iron, isn’t it?” Finn lied, unwilling to drag her customers into something dreadful. Simple wooden dowels made up the railing but who could tell the difference from where they stood. After all, everyone recognized the French Quarter by its beautiful ironwork.

The newlywed pointed, shading her eyes against the early afternoon sun. “No, that wasn’t what I meant, although it is pretty. Up there, doesn’t that look like a body to you?”

Her husband, a tall gangly guy who reminded Finn of a younger version of the actor Jeff Goldblum said, “Sure does, Sugar.”

With difficulty, Finn managed not to curse out loud.

One of the three women whose undertaker husbands—what were the odds?—were here attending a conference said, “My stars, it surely does look like a man.”

The honeymooning husband turned to Finn, disbelief on his face. “Is it a prop or something? To make New Orleans look more authentic?”

Authentic? Did he think this was normal? Finn was many things, but slow on the uptake she wasn’t. She jumped on his farfetched idea. “Right! That’s exactly what it is. Making sure you’re paying attention.”

“It looks so real,” one of the undertaker’s wives murmured, blinking over her bifocals as she stared upward.

“Quite right,” agreed another, turning toward her friends.

“Doesn’t it?” Finn said as she began backing up Toulouse Street. “I’m afraid it’s time to move on. Over here is what they used to call a garconniere.” She continued her story. As a guide with Explore NOLA Tours, she’d described this area hundreds of times; she didn’t need to look at the sights while her mind sputtered with ideas of what she should do about the corpse.

She spoke a few more minutes and hoped they didn’t notice how she cut her talk short. She herded them across the street to a small grocery where they could buy soda or ice cream. When they disappeared inside, she whipped out her cell phone.

“Jack? It’s Finn.”

“Hey, chere, what can I do you for?”

“Jack,” she whispered, “I saw a body, a real, honest-to-God dead body.”

“Uh-huh. Hey, Cordry, you got that warrant ready?” Papers shuffled in her ear as he continued, “Finn, what was that again?”

“I just saw a dead body during my walking tour,” she said raising her voice. No one near her even looked her way. New Orleans. Go figure.

“Come on. You sure?”

“Sure what? That it was a dead body?” This was so typical of Jack. He never took her seriously, never had in twenty years and never would in twenty more.

“This is New Orleans. You know we got all kinds here. Sure it wasn’t a mannequin or a blow-up doll or even someone passed out after one too many frozen daiquiris? Remember when you called me last Halloween about another dead body?”

“Jack.”

“And it turned out to be a damned fool’s idea of a joke on his brother? And how about during Mardi Gras? I seem to recall a naked tattooed woman sleeping in some lucky guy’s lap who you thought was being strangled.”

“Jack.”

“Yeah, chere?” he said, obviously distracted and not paying the least attention to what she was saying because, okay, she admitted it, she did sort of, maybe, have a history with him.

“Listen to me.” She paused. “Are you listening?”

“Yeah, I’m listenin’.”

“You’ve known me my whole life. Do I sound like a hysterical female right now? This time it’s real.” She didn’t give him time to reply. “My tour is almost over and then I’m going back. Meet me at the northwest corner of Dauphine and Toulouse. I’ll be the live one.” She punched her phone disconnecting the call. Men.

Okay, she’d done her civic duty by letting the police know. If hardheaded Jack wasn’t listening, it was his problem. She hoped he got in trouble. Damn him. On a good day, she raced to get home, clean up and get to culinary class on time. Check out dead bodies? No time.

Was it wrong to wait? Too bad. She couldn’t help it. She needed to get rid of her tour group first. After all, he wasn’t going anywhere.

She wished it could be easily explained so Jack could have his usual fit when he found out she tried to bring him out for no reason. Nevertheless, a reason beckoned—a cold, dead reason.

When Jack arrived, he could call CSI: New Orleans or whoever needed to be contacted besides his obnoxious self.

Rushing like a lunatic, Finn finished her tour, collected her tips and left her tourists in front of the praline shop to venture through the rest of the streets of the Quarter on their own. Ordinarily, before she released them she walked them over to The One and Only Voodoo Shop, owned by her bachelor uncles, Neville and Finis Bettencourt, who appreciated the business. Today, not only did she not want to delay her investigation, she didn’t want the tour group to mention the body to her aging uncles. She loved them dearly but they would waste no time dashing around and bringing voodoo medicine to chase away evil or help the deceased find his way unimpeded to heaven, which would inevitably draw a crowd of gawking people.

Instead, she headed back to Toulouse where her new best friend awaited.

She ran, her mind telling her to slow down. When she turned the corner of Dauphine, she looked up out of breath. Still there. She stared at the nearly eight-foot high brick wall separating the courtyard from where she stood. Thick rampant vines clambered over the jagged edges. Leaning on the hood of a car to get a better look, she yanked her hand away when the heated metal burned her palm.

“Damn,” she murmured. She didn’t want to investigate. She didn’t want to wait here on the street for Jack to show up either. If it turned out to be a mannequin or a blow-up doll as he suggested, she’d look ridiculous. Yet again. She could imagine the wicked hand of practical joker, Pete Lamb, in this. He worked for a competing tour company and wasn’t above this sort of prank for his own amusement. She should have considered this earlier, but her scrambled mind refused to cooperate.

Heaving a sigh, she walked to the alley-side of the property, and then stepped up onto the bumper of a VW van parked next to the wall, and with some effort boosted herself over the top. She stumbled into the grassy courtyard scraping her knee on the way down and dropping her over-stuffed backpack. From her prone position, she appeared to be alone. Traffic on the other side of the wall resounded, muted voices called from the street but otherwise all remained quiet.

Finn climbed to her feet expecting to be caught, but no one came running out to harass her. She tiptoed across the grass to the wooden stairs then started up. With each creak of the rickety steps, she waited for someone to holler at her. Or worse.

When she got to the top, she hesitated. She ran her sweaty palms down the thighs of her blue jean shorts. God, what was she doing? Every instinct she possessed told her to wait for Jack, but she continued on, unwilling to admit she needed his assistance. After all the body was dead. It couldn’t hurt her now, and if she’d learned nothing else from TV cop shows, she wouldn’t touch him or anything around him.

She clutched her backpack against her chest and advanced along the gallery past three apartment doors. She stopped cold when she got close enough to the body to stare at his pale, un-moving face. She frowned and leaned closer. He looked familiar.

A quick shuffle of feet sounded behind her. She turned around.

A man stood above her holding a gigantic gun in his raised hand, the light blocking his face. It was the last thing she saw.

***

Finn woke with her face pressed into the splintered wooden floor of the gallery, the pungent scent of frying onions prickling her nose. A throbbing headache pierced the back of her skull. She sat up, woozy and confused. Fingering the goose egg rising on her head, she looked both ways down the length of the gallery. No dead body. No live body. No body at all. She was alone. Her backpack lay beside her, undisturbed.

Climbing to her feet on shaky legs, she grabbed her fallen cap and backpack and took herself down the stairs and out into the courtyard. She pulled a metal lawn chair over to the wall and climbed over, every bone in her body complaining.

Reluctantly, Finn headed for the police station two blocks away on Royal. She was going to kill Jack. Why hadn’t he shown up? What would he think when she told him her story? She cringed. To him Finn was Emmy’s scrawny little sister, making her way through life telling ghost stories to the tourists. Even at the ripe old age of twenty-five, the recently skinned knee proved him right.

Finn walked past the iron fence surrounding the Eighth District police headquarters, her heart thudding. All she had to do was walk inside and tell Jack what happened. An unknown assailant knocked her unconscious, her so-called dead body disappeared, and bad guys might want to silence her. How difficult could that be?

She pulled open the door. Guilt rolled over her, even though she’d done nothing wrong. It was either the suspicious looks she received from the officers milling around, or the rank odor of stale coffee and nervous energy. Either way, they stared at her as if she’d committed a major crime.

A stiff smile plastered on her face, she lifted her head and marched into the detectives’ arena.

She spied Jack Boyle standing with one lean hip angled against his cluttered desk munching on a Po Boy sandwich. He’d taken off his suit coat and stood with the sleeves of his white dress shirt rolled up and his tie loosened. His dark blonde hair brushed the tops of his ears, and appeared as if he’d run his hands through the thick strands more than once. As usual, he looked good enough to eat.

“Hey, boys, look what the cat dragged in,” he said between bites. “Finnigan Jones, New Orleans’ most infamous ghost hunter tracking down spirits for the tourists.”

Yep, that’s where she stood with this particular New Orleans homicide detective. If the look Jack gave Finn when she crept into his male dominated space was any indication, she was in for a long day. Longer than it had been already.

“Where the hell were you?”

“I got tied up.” He grinned at his partner, Cordry, who chuckled good-naturedly. “Not literally, unfortunately. A guy can dream though, can’t he?”

“Have at it, Boyle. Whatever floats your boat.” Sitting at a desk across from Jack, the forty-something Cordry gave Finn a thumbs up. His face crinkled with a grin. She had no idea what his first name was-–Jack never used one.

“I need a minute, Jack.” She put her hands on her hips. “This is important.”

“Sure thing. What is it?” He set his sandwich on his desk and turned to face the other men in the room, wiping his hands on a napkin. He winked at the lanky sloe-eyed detective he called partner. “You’ve misplaced one of your tourists? Or found a ghost you can add to your Quarter itinerary?”

A snicker erupted from the corner of the room.

“Don’t be such an ass.”

His eyes widened in mock horror. “Who? Moi?”

Jack was as honest as anyone she’d ever met. Brutally honest. He was also too darn good-looking and too big a smart ass for his own damn good. And he knew it. She wanted to slap the smirk off his face. If her head didn’t hurt so much, she would have.

She and her older sister Emmy, Jack and his younger brother, Tommy, had all played together in the same Irish Channel neighborhood as kids. Two houses apart, they practically lived at each other’s homes. Jack had bedeviled Finn since he’d learned how to string a sentence together. Once, she’d harbored feelings of lust toward him. It passed abruptly at the naïve age of fifteen when she discovered him with Emmy, on the same bed she shared with her sister. The vivid image of Jack’s pale, muscular rump bouncing on the bedsprings stayed with her for several years. It was a fine backside, but her future vision of a white house, picket fence and miniature Jack Boyles playing in the yard faded forever.

“What’s the problem?”

“Do you remember our phone conversation of, oh, half an hour ago?” Finn ground her back teeth in frustration.

He nodded, squinting at her, as if she might disappear in front of his eyes. Maybe he was hoping. He picked up his sandwich, took a bite and stared at her over the paper wrapping.

“I need to speak with you,” she said. “Privately.”

Jack dropped the sandwich on his desk, took Finn by the elbow and walked her into an interrogation room. He closed the door behind him and leaning against it, folded his arms over his chest. “Shoot.”

She, too, crossed her arms. She’d heard somewhere mimicking another person’s body language showed interest. Hopefully, he didn’t know that so-called fact and misinterpret it as sexual interest. Finn merely wanted to grab the upper hand. As if she could ever do it with him. “Remember? I said I saw a dead body.”

“I thought you were kidding.”

“Did it sound like I was kidding? It was real and I expected you to do something about it.”

Jack’s mouth quirked into a slight grin. One eyebrow arched in question. “Oh? Like what, chere?”

Could he be more insufferable? She barely refrained from rolling her eyes. “I was giving my usual tour. We stopped on the banquette so I could show them the gallery on the back of an apartment building. You know, the gallery, the courtyard, a little local architectural history.”

Jack rubbed his chin with the side of his index finger, then nodded. “Okay, go on.”

“Anyway the courtyard was empty, but this odd shadow appeared above. It looked like someone bent over the rail on the gallery. When I studied it closer, I thought it was a body, a very dead body. Even though I was scared spitless, seeing a dead body is kinda unsettling, you know, I got my tourists’ attention back to the building on the other side of the courtyard. With ten minutes of the tour left I finished up, after I called you.”

His face sobered. “Okay, so maybe I should have paid closer attention.”

“Thank you.” She continued, her voice shaking. “I went back to the scene of the crime-”

“Scene of the crime?” He shook his head. “You’ve been watching too much TV.”

“—thinking you’d be there to help me investigate. I figured the body wasn’t going anywhere.”

“You shouldn’t be investigating anything.”

Now was probably not the right time to tell him she’d taken a part-time job with Tommy, a private investigator, for late night surveillance. Tourism had been off since Hurricane Katrina emptied the streets of people, particularly the tourists, and she needed the cash. “I’ve seen dead bodies before.”

“Yeah, at Big Ed’s. All dressed up in their fancy clothes, and laying in a casket. Not the same thing.” He snorted but his gaze remained serious.

Recalling the scene, she grimaced. “No, it wasn’t the same thing.”

“Whatever. I ask again, how can you be sure it was a dead body?”

“Well, I can’t now, it’s gone.”

“Gone?” He frowned. “What do you mean gone?”

“I went back after my tour. I thought you’d be there, but you weren’t, so I climbed over the wall to take a closer look and it wasn’t there anymore.” She tapped her foot in agitation.

He slapped his forehead. “Did you even stop to think a bad guy might still be around?”

“No.”

“And can we add trespassing to your other offenses? What the hell do you want me to do about all this now?” He threw his hands up.

“Investigate. Isn’t that what they pay you for?”

“Yeah. Real homicides. Not some crazy story about a dead body which isn’t anywhere to be found.” He slanted a look at her skinned knee, then up at her cap with Explore NOLA Tours printed in neon pink, and the wavy red curls escaping from beneath. He shook his head and blew out a slow breath.

“Couldn’t you look for blood or some other forensic evidence?” she asked.

“Did you see blood?”

“Maybe, Detective Boyle. I was a little rattled.”

“Now don’t go all snippy on me, Finn.” He pointed to the shadowed inside window in the room, then took her by the elbow and steered her out the door away from prying ears. From the gesture, she figured he meant they might be alone in an interrogation room, but it didn’t mean someone wasn’t listening on the other side of the wall. She appreciated the gesture, but she would never say so. After all, he humiliated her by letting the entire squad room think he thought she was a nut job.

Without another word, they walked outside into the hot sunshine where he sat her down on the concrete ledge, which held in place the wrought iron fence surrounding the building. When he looked around and saw they were alone, he stood over her, leaned down and said, “I’ll take a look as soon as I can get away, I promise. You’re right. It’s my job.”

“Thanks, Jack. I’d feel better about it.” She winced before telling him the other news about her foray into police detection. “There is one part, though, I kinda left out.”

“Damn. I knew it.” He rubbed his palms down his face. He stared at her, his clear, blue-eyed gaze focused and intense. “What is it?”

“When I went back to check on the body, somebody clobbered me over the head.”

He sat down beside her, never taking his gaze from hers. “What? Are you kidding me? Are you okay?”

Finn tugged on his shirtsleeve. “Shush. Someone will hear.”

“Who? Well, damn, Finn.” Concern etched lines on his familiar face. “Are you okay?” he asked again.

“Other than a roaring headache and a lump on the back of my head, I think I’ll live.” She swept a finger over the goose egg beneath the edge of her cap. Still there and growing.

“This changes everything,” Jack said, frowning. He took her chin in his and turned her head studying her eyes. Gingerly he brushed the fingers of his other hand over the lump. He grimaced.

Finn slumped back against the fence. “Finally you take me seriously.”

Chere, you’re in way over your head here.”

“I know,” she murmured. “I know.”

“Could you identify your assailant?”

“Probably not but the dead guy kinda looked familiar.”

“Familiar how?”

“I don’t know exactly, except it’s how when you see someone out of context, like the druggist is eating at the same restaurant, and he looks familiar but you can’t place him. That’s kind of how it feels.”

“I don’t like the sound of any of this. Whoever hit you can probably identify you, probably knows you saw something. You could identify the body, at least.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“You might be in danger now.” He gave her a pointed stare with those cool blue eyes of his.

“I don’t want to admit it, but I know.” Actually, she didn’t feel like thinking about it, much less talking about it. Each word pierced her head like an ice pick to the brain. All she wanted to do was go home, swallow a handful of aspirin and soak in a hot tub. “I know.”

“I’ll investigate but first you have to promise me something.”

Uh-oh. “Oh, boy.”

“Don’t worry. It doesn’t involve sex, unless, of course,” he gave her a devilish grin, “it’s what you want. I’ve been known to cure many problems, even worse than a little bump on the head.”

Finn punched him on the arm. “That’s so not what I want. What happened to Bitsy?”

He sighed, releasing her chin. “She left me for greener pastures.”

“You mean for a man who could commit?”

He clutched his hand to his chest. “You sure know how to wound a guy.”

“Not you. You’ve got a tough hide.”

“That’s me. Those good Catholic nuns beat it into me. Too bad you didn’t get the same treatment. Maybe your head wouldn’t be hurting like a bitch right now.”

Uneasy in New Orleans“How true.”

He grinned. “Bitsy wasn’t much good in the sack anyway.”

Finn groaned. “I could have gone my whole life without knowing that, Detective. She was pretty, though.”

“You thought so?” He pursed his lips. “Tell you what? I’ll come over for a drink when I get off.”

“Why? And do you really think I should be drinking.”

“So we can compare notes and I can make sure you’re okay, but no, you’re right. You shouldn’t be drinking.”

“Ha. What do you want?”

His right brow rose in disbelief. “Now, why would you say such a thing?”

“I know you, Jack. You always want something.”

“Not with you, I don’t.”

“No, never with me.” Sad to admit but undeniably true. She hadn’t fantasized about the two of them more than, oh, a thousand times since she’d seen him in the altogether. But she was safe—he knew she wouldn’t take his flirting seriously or expect anything from him.

“Tonight all I want is the pleasure of your company.”

“Yeah. Right.”

“I’ll give you a break since your head hurts. We’ll meet in a neutral place; say six-thirty in the upstairs bar at the Riverside on Bourbon. We’ll laugh at the tourists trying to sneak peeks into the strip clubs.”

Finn shook her throbbing head. “I don’t know.”

“Take two aspirin and lay down ’til then. I’ll buy.”

“Aren’t you the generous one.”

Jack whispered in her ear, “I make it a practice. See you at six-thirty, chere.”

He started to turn away, then said, “I’m writing up an official report. Whatever else happened, you were assaulted.”

He wrapped an arm around her shoulder and kissed her cheek. She reached up and tugged on his ear.

“Ow.”

“You can be such a jerk, Jack. You should have been there.”

“Yeah,” he said, ducking his head but keeping one eye on her. “I feel bad about it, I do, but how’d I know you’d go and get yourself hurt? I was caught up in an ongoing murder investigation, Cordry went mental on me, and in all the confusion I forgot about your call.”

“This is your idea of an apology?”

He held out his hands, palms up. “Best I got. Doesn’t mean I don’t love you.”

“Jack.”

“I can’t help teasing. You make it so easy.”

Feeling a bit wounded she asked, “Teasing me?”

“Especially you.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’m no shrink. I think it’s called flirting.”

“You need to work on your technique.”

“You’re probably right.” He winked as he turned to go.

Finn stood up and trudged down the street, the cacophony of the riverboat calliope slamming her eardrums. She waved as she rounded Royal and headed toward the river to catch her streetcar. “See you at six-thirty.”

“I’ll be there, Nancy Drew.”

“Butthead,” she muttered beneath her breath. Still, through the agony of her aching head, she couldn’t help but smile.

***

Finn lived in the maid’s quarters, a tiny doll-like cottage, behind her aunt’s elegant, white Greek Revival style antebellum Garden District home. Hers was not the most spacious place, but the price was right. Rent-free. Aunt Gert liked having Finn close by and she figured having another person around would keep away intruders. Why? Finn didn’t have a clue. Living in the quiet, genteel neighborhood was more than worth a few nights spent in the company of Gert and her multitude of cats. And her massive Garfield memorabilia collection.

Because Carnival Cruise ships sailed from the New Orleans riverfront, Aunt Gert cruised once a month searching for suitors and Finn did cat-sitting duties free.

With a waterproof pillow propped behind her neck, Finn closed her eyes and let the heat of the bath water soothe her aching head and tense body. Unfortunately, even the pop and crackle of the fragrant orange sherbet bath bubbles couldn’t keep terrifying thoughts of her mortality from her stricken mind. My God. I could have been killed.

She tried to think of other things, things she loved–- chocolate layer cake, Oreo cookies, her mom’s shrimp gumbo. She must be hungry. She tried thinking of sex but it had been so long since she’d actually made love with a man, food seemed like a more realistic fantasy.

Uneasy in New OrleansShe reached over the side of the tub for her towel. When she couldn’t locate it by feel, she scanned the floor. Where was the damn thing? Leaning over she saw it. How did it get behind the leg of the old-fashioned claw foot tub?

Before she could get to the towel, the squeaky doorknob turned. Finn yelped. Anticipating more mayhem against her already beleaguered body, she frantically searched the bathroom for a weapon as the door inched open. Her fingers latched onto the plunger behind the toilet. If nothing else, the ick factor might keep her tormenter at bay.

“Why are you taking a bubble bath in the middle of the afternoon?”

Surprised to see her sister, Debbie, Finn released a long sigh. She hadn’t seen her in six months, but was thankful it was someone she knew. Finn dropped the plunger. “It’s not the middle of the afternoon.”

“Is so.”

“Are you alone, or should I be grabbing my towel?”

“Just little ol’ me.”

So, what did the little hellion look like today? Debbie, her seventeen-year-old younger sister, was supposed to be in Florida living with their retired parents. She was an “oops baby” coming along when their parents were closing in on fifty. Needless to say, she was spoiled rotten. “Hello, Debs. Good to see you. Where’s Mom and Dad?”

“Home. In Florida.”

“How’d you get here? Steal Dad’s car?”

“Greyhound.” Debbie dropped the toilet lid and sat down, her elbows on her knees, her chin in her hand. Finn couldn’t take her eyes off her hair, shockingly lovely shades of purple and grass green. With Debbie’s gold-flecked caramel brown eyes, she sported all the de rigueur Mardi Gras colors. She wore blue jeans with a ragged tear in the left knee, a black Harry Potter tee showing an ample amount of flat tummy—and a pierced belly button?

Finn looked closer. Definitely a new addition. “It’s great to see you, but a phone call would have been nice.”

“No time. Bad news on the home front.” She chipped at the purple fingernail polish on her index finger.

Finn sighed, leaned her head carefully against the back of the tub and closed her eyes. “Something new?”

“Finn, it totally is this time.”

“Oh, yeah? What?”

“Not real bad news. You’re going to have company.”

Finn lifted her head to stare at Debbie. “Please don’t tell me it’s Mom and Dad. They were just here.”

Finn loved her parents, in a single dose, sort of like a flu shot. Once a year took care of the possible side effects—strained patience, angry tirades and suggestions for lifestyle changes. Hers. Finn loved her job as a tour guide but it was supposed to be temporary. After five years, her mother didn’t think it was a good career choice.

Dorie thought a teacher or a nurse was a more respectable profession and, of course, grandchildren would be nice. Her father never failed to harangue her about the unsavory characters one found in the French Quarter. Little did her father realize many of those unsavory characters were tourists who were not only her livelihood but New Orleans’ as well. How was that her fault anyway?

“Nope, not Dorie and Dan.” Debbie never called their parents Mom and Dad. Maybe it was the late-in-life baby thing. They treated Debbie as an equal. A spoiled rotten equal who pretty much got everything she asked for. Debbie lifted her head and grinned, giving Finn an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of her stomach—the one you get when the pilot comes over the intercom to say, “We’re having a slight problem with one of the engines.”

“Me,” Debbie continued with a broad smile. “I’m your company.”

“You’ve come for a visit?” asked Finn, hopefully.

“Kind of.”

Finn sighed. “What happened this time?”

“They kind of kicked me out.”

“Kind of?”

“We-ell, it had something to do with Freddy.”

“The skater boyfriend?”

“Yeah.”

“What did Freddy do? Drugs? Trouble at school?” Finn groaned. “Don’t tell me he got arrested.”

Debbie shook her head. “Nothing so stupid. Freddy’s, like, way cool. He and I were fooling around after school. Dorie came home earlier than I expected and she, like, you know, found us.”

“Fooling around? I take it you mean sex.”

“Yeah. I think she, you know, probably heard us before she saw us. Freddy is a moaner. I was letting him—”

“Too much information, Debs. And you shouldn’t be having sex anyway. A moaner. Please.”

“Sorry,” she muttered, not sounding the least bit repentant. She grinned and went back to chipping her nail polish.

“I hope you were at least using protection.”

“Yeah.”

“What did Mom say?”

“She, like, went totally ballistic on me. Said I was exactly like Emmy, and how come I couldn’t be more like you?”

“Me?” She stared at Debbie. No way. “She held me up as a good example?”

“Yeah, you don’t have sex.”

“With sound effects.” Finn closed her eyes. “And not at the parents’ house.”

Debbie rolled her big, brown eyes. “You know what I mean.”

Unfortunately, she did. Finn didn’t have sex. At least not in the last couple of months, or maybe more honestly, the last year. But who was counting? Why did Debbie have to bring it up on a day Finn would as soon forget? “Thanks, Debs. I so appreciate my little sister pointing out my lack of a sex life. Anything I can do for you, just say so.”

Debbie got down on her knees and rested her arms on the side of the tub. “Let me stay? Please.”

“Sure. What are sisters for?”

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