Michele Albert @ inkalicious.com

Chapter One

Lake Pontchartrain, New Orleans
Monday

"The Red Dragon is going down, Dulcie. He blew away Juan Hernandez in the Cracker tonight and this time we got us an eyewitness who'll put the Dragon away for good."

Dulcinea Quinn ignored the cool October rain beating against her. She even ignored the threatening sparks of lightning in the black sky as she stood face-to-face with Detective Bobby Halloran, her friend and onetime partner, on the pitching deck of her houseboat.

Elation rushed through her, quickening her heartbeat. "Are you sure?"

"I'm sure Hernandez won't be picking himself off the barroom floor where I left him with the medical examiner's team," Bobby said, and Dulcie heard the controlled excitement in his voice. "And I'm damn sure about my witness. He's standing right over there."

She glanced over her shoulder as the waves of Lake Pontchartrain rolled the deck beneath her feet. Ropes creaked in protest as the boat strained away from the pier. Two cops, barely visible in the bleary light from her cabin, huddled on the pier by the back of the boat. A tall man in a raincoat stood apart from them.

With dawning suspicion, Dulcie looked back at Bobby. "What do you want from me?"

"I need your help. The Dragon's gonna come after that prize witness of mine, and I need him to stay with you until I can get him to a safe place."

Ten minutes ago, her only objective was to somehow squeeze forty-eight hours into each of the next few days. Now Bobby wanted her to stash away a murder witness on her boat. So much for forgetting the past and moving forward with her new life.

"You couldn't have picked a worse time for this, Bobby. And when are you going to get it through that thick skull of yours that I'm not a cop anymore?"

"You want the Red Dragon as bad as I do, Dulcie."

She met Bobby's intense, knowing gaze.

Jacob Mitsumi, the Red Dragon -- nicknamed for the fire-red dragon tattooed down his back. She'd encountered the vicious drug dealer only once, but saw his violent legacy every day on the streets of New Orleans and in the newspaper headlines.

"Don't tell me you've forgotten what Mitsumi's men did to you," Bobby prodded.

Dulcie glared at him. "No more than you've forgotten."

He didn't look away. "Can my witness stay here or not?"

Rain continued to run in rivulets down her face, but she didn't wipe it away. Nor did she ask him to come inside, although the wet weather didn't do much for the ache in her back and did nothing at all to improve her mood. "Who'll pay me to baby-sit this guy? And don't ... don't you dare say a word about my pension."

A corner of his mouth tipped up. "Do this for me, darlin', and I'll treat you to a bottle of champagne and dinner at any restaurant in town. We'll celebrate all night long. Dancing, singing, saying prayers to any deity you want. Just say yes."

Dulcie glanced back toward the pier. The witness had moved closer to the railing of her boat. Beneath the long raincoat -- which she recognized as Bobby's -- he wore cowboy boots. Nothing else that she could see. She frowned.

"C'mon, Dulcie," Bobby said, bringing her attention back to him. She narrowed her eyes. His smile widened. "Please?"

The wet silk of his maroon shirt adhered to his skin like cellophane, and she always did have a weakness for wide Irish grins and handsome chests. "Bobby -- "

As if sensing her wavering resolve, he moved closer. "Just for a day or so. Honest. I can't trust him with anybody else right now, and knowing how much you love the Dragon, I thought you'd jump at the chance to help me out a little here."

Dulcie took another look at the witness. Some low-life loser, if he came from the Cracker -- one of the city's worst biker bars. It didn't matter. His testimony would put the Red Dragon in prison, and just imagining Mitsumi behind bars almost made her forget about the ache in her back.

"All right," she said. "He can stay a day or two -- but no more than that. I have my first show in a week. Doll artists and buyers from all over the country will be there, and I can't miss it."

"Two days." He gave her a quick kiss on her forehead. "I promise."

Dulcie groaned. "Oh, God, Bobby, don't do that. You know you don't keep half your promises, and I'm in no mood for make-believe tonight."

"Retirement sure hasn't done much for your sense of humor," Bobby said, grinning, then made a beckoning motion with his hand. "Bring him up, Les."

Over Bobby's shoulder, she watched the cops approach the rail of her houseboat -- not much more than a small trailer on pontoons -- and recognized officers Les James and Lucille Pettijohn. Les opened the gate and swung himself onto the side deck, then turned toward the witness.

The witness, however, ignored the gate and vaulted effortlessly over the rail to the wet, shining deck. In doing so, the belt caught under his hand and the raincoat opened, revealing bare legs, a bare chest, and something that sparkled when the lightning flashed.

Dulcie straightened in alarm.

"Guess I should warn you," Bobby said over a rumble of thunder, his voice more subdued than usual. "He's a stripper."

As if her powers of deduction had been retired along with her badge. In ten years of police work, Dulcie had seen things most people couldn't begin to imagine, but she still stared at the approaching figure.

The man walked with the self-assurance of a CEO in a thousand-dollar suit, although beneath the raincoat he wore nothing but boots, a sequin bow tie and a black G-string.

Dulcie turned and glared at Bobby, not at all pleased with his belated warning. "I hope you brought him a change of clothes. He's never going to keep a low profile in that." She jerked her thumb at the expanse of flesh exposed as the raincoat flared wider in the wind. The man made no attempt to pull it closed again. As if he dared her not to look -- dared her not to react to such a shameless, aggressive display.

Bobby swore under his breath, putting himself hastily between Dulcie and his witness. "Ms. Quinn and I have a few details to discuss about your visit. Go stand up front."

Without a word, the stripper moved past Dulcie with an easy, almost insolent grace. His muscles were wet and sleek with rain, and he had the longest lashes she'd ever seen. A man had no business being born with lashes like that, especially with a face and body that raised eyebrows, blood pressure, and hopes.

"Heck of a night, huh?" she asked. She didn't know why she'd spoken to him at all, except maybe she wanted another look at his face.

He stopped, then turned.

Lightning sparked, bringing into sharp relief black hair and eyes as dark and cold as the depths of the Mississippi. Eyes that were flat. Eyes that made her think of an alligator's unblinking, predatory stare.

"Move it. Now," Bobby said, his voice sharp. "And for God's sake, tie that coat back up."

The stripper ignored Bobby. Instead, he treated Dulcie to a cursory and dismissive glance before continuing on his way along the narrow side deck to the front of her boat.

Her skin prickled against her damp jeans and cotton shirt. She took a deep, steadying breath and smelled the ever-present odors of dirty water, gasoline, and decaying fish and vegetation.

"We didn't have time to pack a suitcase." Bobby's deeper drawl was a sure indication of his anger. "I'll send one of the boys back with some clothes. For now, you're just gonna have to avert your eyes, darlin'."

Dulcie frowned, wondering why Bobby had hustled his witness away before the man had a chance to dress. She glanced at the gator-eyed Adonis. "What's his name?"

"Julien. Julien Langlois."

She sighed. "Have you talked to this guy? Gotten a story from him?"

"Sure did. On the way here."

"So what happened? What the hell was a stripper doing at the Cracker?"

Bobby ran a hand over the blond stubble of his jaw. "Hard to say," he said after a moment. "I need to check out Langlois' story further. Until I know for certain, Dulcie, I can't say anything other than there was a shoot-out at the Cracker between a couple of drug dealers, and one of them ended up with more holes in him than a sieve."

She supposed the whys and the wherefores didn't really matter. The only fact of importance to her was that Bobby had an eyewitness who could prove that Juan Hernandez, petty scum that he was, had been killed by Jacob Mitsumi, the prince of scum. "Seems a bit high-handed, bringing him here like this. Are you sure his lawyer is going to approve?"

"I'll take care of it. Les and Lucille will stay behind and keep watch over things. Keep it all proper-like."

Dulcie made a derisive sound. She glanced at the pretty black officer behind her, then grinned. "Bet you didn't have to twist Lucille's arm too hard to volunteer for this one."

"Ha," said Lucille Pettijohn. "There'd have been two bodies lying on that smelly barroom floor if he hadn't let me come along."

"Which is why I'm here," Les James added, arms crossed against his solid belly. "To make sure Lucy behaves."

Dulcie laughed. Maybe this situation wouldn't be so bad after all. It would be just for a day or two. She could handle that, and it wouldn't put her too far behind schedule. "When you send someone by with his clothes, bring food too. I don't have much. Hope he likes hot dogs."

Bobby chucked her under the chin, looking both pleased and relieved. "He'll be happy with anything you offer, or he answers to me." He glanced at both Les and Lucille, then added, "We'll pick up some groceries, and a pair of pants for pretty boy over there. In the meantime, don't let Langlois out of your sight."

"You're expecting trouble?" Dulcie asked.

Of course he was. Unease niggled at back of her mind. This was no small risk she was taking, letting this stripper stay with her. But the hope that Mitsumi might finally get what he deserved overrode her fears.

"Darlin', I'm always expecting trouble." Bobby's expression grew serious. "Mitsumi will do anything to keep Langlois from telling a judge and jury who killed Hernandez. But I don't need to tell you that."

He didn't. The twinge in her back reminded her every hour, every day. She glanced at Bobby's prize witness. He stood away from the front rail, watching her. His coat billowed like wings behind him and Dulcie wondered how many hours a day it took to maintain a body like that. Realizing she was staring, she turned away, her cheeks hot.

"You know, he doesn't look very happy to be here. Tell me you really haven't dumped on me a gay stripper with a bad attitude and a price on his handsome hide."

Bobby flashed his wide smile. "Langlois says he's clean and straight. No drugs, booze, boys, or girls. He's a businessman. Charges more'n a couple hundred bucks an hour to strut his stuff. Can you believe that? I got into the wrong line of business, maybe. What do you think?" He swiveled his hips experimentally.

"I think you better get off my boat, Halloran." Dulcie couldn't help smiling back. With his usual adroitness, he'd avoided her allusion to possible danger. She must be more exhausted with these late hours than she thought, because at the moment, it seemed perfectly reasonable to hide away a half-naked murder witness on her boat. "And bring that man his pants before he starts charging me by the hour. My pension doesn't cover much more than his G-string."

Bobby gave a shout of laughter. "Dulcie, I do miss you, darlin'."

Another stab of pain hit her, this one nowhere near her back. "I miss the old job, too. So what are you waiting for?" she demanded, before either embarrassed themselves with a show of emotion. Bobby already wore an odd expression on his face, one she couldn't quite make out. She punched him in the arm. "Go catch some bad guys. Les, Lucille and I can handle Monsieur Langlois."

"Me and Monsieur Langlois are gonna set down a few rules first. Hey!" Bobby shouted. "Get over here."

The man walked forward as lightning flashed again. It amazed her, how he moved as though fully clothed. The boat's light, weak and yellow, played along his shifting, fluid muscles. Sleek. Beautiful.

She imagined him on a stage in a dark bar, the air smoky and smelling of beer and wine. Women calling for him, reaching to touch him. Slipping money inside that thin elastic band.

She was beginning to understand why a woman might do such a thing.

"That is one prime piece of male animal," Lucille whispered from behind Dulcie. "Just want to take a bite out of him, don't you?"

Dulcie heard the unmistakable noise of smacking lips. But before she could answer, Julien Langlois stepped in front of her. Near enough for her to see that the drooping sequin bow tie was red and black; close enough to watch the raindrops bead and roll down the smooth, oiled skin of his chest.

God, he was tall. At least three inches more than her own six feet. If he'd heard Lucille's crude comment, he gave no indication of it.

"Langlois," Bobby said, in a deceptively pleasant drawl. "I'm leaving you with Dulcie Quinn, who's a very good friend of mine. You do just as she says and don't give her any of the trouble you've been giving me. Got that?"

Langlois nodded once.

"Good. Now get inside the cabin back there and stay out of sight," Bobby ordered. He grabbed his witness by the jacket collar and shoved him forward.

Langlois stumbled. He steadied himself, turned, and stared at Bobby, Les, and Lucille, then finally Dulcie herself. In the sudden silence rain pattered against wood and water, gently melodic, as the boat rocked on the waves.

And Dulcie, in that brief moment, saw a man who wasn't afraid for his life, who didn't look in need of any protection at all.

"You better get inside," she murmured, breaking the tension, and motioned to the cabin door. She glanced at Bobby as the stripper walked past. "Was that necessary?"

Bobby eyed her. "What?"

"Shoving him like that. He's your witness, and you are supposed to be one of the good guys."

Even in the darkness, she saw his skin darken. The curse of fair-skinned Irish ancestors, that deep red flush. "He hasn't exactly been cooperative," Bobby answered at last.

Dulcie waited, but when it became apparent that was all the explanation she'd get, she sighed. "So what do you want me to do?"

"Take the boat out until I get back with the groceries and his clothes."

Take the boat out? Getting the bulky houseboat on the lake wasn't as easy as paddling a pirogue around, and he knew that. Again, Dulcie waited for an explanation. Again, she didn't get one. "Okay ... I'll chug around the shoreline. Be here by midnight."

Bobby wiped his wet sleeve across his face and let out his breath. "Don't let him out of your sight."

The repeated warnings and angry tension between Bobby and his witness roused her suspicions. She frowned, watching as a shadow passed behind the window curtains of her cabin. "We're on a lake, Bobby. Where can he go?"

Bobby shrugged, but the expression on his face was uneasy. "Something don't smell right in Denmark, darlin'."

She recalled the cold eyes, the aggressive stride of those long, bare legs. No fear. No fear at all. "I'll keep Langlois in the cabin and your people can stay in the front room. Lucille, honey, you haven't forgotten how to steer my boat, have you?"

Lucille snapped her mint gum. "Not at all. How come I can't sit in there and play bodyguard while you steer this old bucket? I'm the one with a gun."

Bobby snorted, and Dulcie, moving along the sidedeck back toward the cabin, couldn't help but smile. "That's what I'm afraid of. God knows what you'd do to that poor boy if you had him at gunpoint." She turned the knob on the door. "An hour, Bobby. Be on time for once."

If Bobby answered at all, his words were lost in a rich rumble of thunder and the sound of the door slamming shut behind her.

* * *

Once inside the cabin, Dulcie noticed her 'guest' had made himself at home.

It was a small room, meant for one person or maybe an amorous couple, and it didn't help that the disorganized chaos of her craft lay scattered across every available flat surface. Dolls in all shapes and sizes, in various stages of assembly. Eyeless and hairless heads, bodiless limbs, dimpled baby dolls and exquisitely dressed historical mannequins no higher than the palm of her hand.

Her longtime passion: doll-making. One that had prevented her from going crazy during those interminable weeks in the hospital bed, and that even now kept her from thinking about the pain in her back and all she'd lost. But the past had suddenly intruded this night. Memories and anger came sweeping back; all because of this stranger, whose presence filled every square inch of her cabin.

A stripper. Oh, grand. Inwardly, she cursed Bobby Halloran's devious, unscrupulous hide. He'd known she wouldn't say no, not even to a man like this.

Langlois had thrown the wet raincoat aside and lounged on her bed in his G-string. Her artist's eye saw a bacchanalian figure in brooding fleshy pigments, fit to adorn the ceiling of milady's bedchamber, but woman's eye simply saw a man fit for milady's bed.

Annoyed with herself for even imagining such a thing, Dulcie moved into the cabin. Country music drifted softly through the room as she walked past the bed with its silent occupant. She turned the lamp on her workbench higher, killing the intimate mood.

"You cold?" The belligerent tone in her voice wasn't intentional, but he didn't seem to notice. He shook his head.

Since he didn't labor under any burden of shyness, she permitted herself a further, appreciative look at the body on blatant display. Her gaze followed the faint line of dark hair down his flat belly, to where it disappeared beneath the satiny Spandex pouch that barely concealed some rather impressive male proportions. Again, she imagined what it would be like to slip a twenty-dollar bill inside that elastic band; what her fingers would encounter ...

Dulcie looked back up at his face and met his eyes. "Don't you find those string things uncomfortable?" He shook his head again. For some reason, his persistent silence irritated her. "Do you speak English, or are you just mute?"

"All of me is in workin' order."

He had a voice to match the rest of him. Male and primal and beautiful, colored with an Acadian accent.

A moment before he lowered those long lashes, she thought she saw a spark of anger. Her own temper flared, tinged with embarrassment from ogling him with the finesse of a fourteen-year-old -- even though there was an awful lot of bare male lying on her bed, and she was only human.

"If you should have a sudden attack of good manners, there's a blanket in the cupboard above your head."

"Nervous, chère?" Langlois didn't give her a chance to answer, coming to his feet with a lazy grace that put her on guard at once. He smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. "You want I just take it off?"

Dulcie banished the image taking shape in her mind, and gave him what she hoped was a disapproving look. "Whatever floats your boat. I've seen it all before."

She eased her way toward the outside door, but Langlois got there first, blocking the way.

His dark gaze flicked to the double-sized bed, with its faded plaid comforter, then back to her. "Cozy."

Her muscles tensed. "Glad you think so. You're sleeping on the floor." Godamighty, she'd met the man only five minutes ago and already itched to slap his face. So much for humble gratitude.

He laughed; a deep, fluid sound. "Don't star witnesses rate better?"

"You rate: the cops kept that comic-book-hero chest of yours free of bad ol' bullet holes. You can show your gratitude by being good and doing as you're told."

She tried to move past without touching him. But he wouldn't stand aside, forcing her to brush close against him. A drop of water from his dripping hair rolled down the polished chest. He smelled of cigarette smoke, sweat, and aromatic oils.

"I'm a good boy," Langlois said low into her ear as she pushed past. "I do as I'm told. What you want me to do, chère?"

Dulcie whirled around to blister his ears. But faced with the solid expanse of tanned flesh, a mocking face, and those cold eyes, she changed her mind and fled to the safe, if soggy, deck.

She stalked to the front of the boat, struggling to get her anger in check, and stared out across the wind-tossed waters of the lake, at the lights from other boats -- luggers, houseboats, barges and cabin cruisers -- blinking and twinkling like stars against the dark water and sky. In the distance she heard the loud blare of a horn, along with the ever-present purr of engines. The generator on shore hummed and crackled under the pattering of the rain.

"The look on your face tells me you and Julien have, ah, gotten acquainted."

Lucille stood beside her, arms folded across her chest. The light caught the gleam of her police badge's star and crescent emblem and the knowing sparkle in her eye. "He had Halloran ready to chew concrete within ten minutes of meeting him. Sure has a way about him, doesn't he?"

"A way that's going to get him kicked off my boat if he keeps it up," Dulcie retorted.

"Uh-huh," Lucille agreed, her mouth widening in a smile. "Got to you, didn't he?"

"A bit."

As she glared down Lucille's smirk, Dulcie recognized the truth in the woman's words. Langlois had goaded her to anger on purpose. A lot more than 'a bit,' she admitted with disgust. She didn't know why he'd want to make her angry, but she intended to find out.

Later. After she'd cooled off ... and got under control those embarrassing urges to explore beneath that elastic band.

Chapter Two

Julien Langlois listened to the door slam behind him, then pressed his forehead against the wall, eyes squeezed shut. He counted slowly, until he trusted himself not to smash a fist through the screen.

So close.

Red Dragon had been his. Eye-to-eye over the black gun barrel, the Dragon had understood and smiled. Then that fool Hernandez lost his head and started shooting, the cops showed up, and everything went all to hell.

He'd been so close -- point-blank. But he had hesitated, one second too long.

He wanted to howl with rage, but couldn't. Mais non, he must play the grateful witness -- until he got the chance to escape.

To hell with them all. They couldn't guard him every second of the day. One of them would slip up, look away for a moment, and he'd be gone. Just like that.

From somewhere in the room came the strains of country music. Fiddles. Fast, furious. He needed to stop it. Julien picked his way across the boxes toward the source of the sound, finding a tape player on a cluttered bench beneath a pile of pink lace. He shoved the lace aside, punched the 'off' button, and stepped back in the sudden, soothing silence.

New plans. He didn't have much time. The woman was his best bet. She'd watched him, a hungry gleam in her eyes, and he'd play that hunger ... Dieu, like a fiddle.

There was no other way out.

Julien looked around, assessing the small room with its bed, workspace, and clutter. An inner door led to a compact kitchen area, and off to the side was a bathroom the size of a closet. Past the kitchen, separated by another door, was a sitting room furnished with tables and a single sofa bed. All the windows were small, too small for him to fit through, and the doors were aligned centrally, so that when open one could see from one end of the houseboat to the other. His cage was nothing more than a camper on a barge, plugged into electrical lines on shore.

What kind of woman lived on a boat?

He walked back toward the bed, stepping over boxes full of arms, heads, and limbs. A woman like her, full of sass, playing with dolls. He hesitated by the workbench on the far side of the room, then picked up a baby doll. It looked real. Too real. He put it down.

His restless gaze fell on more boxes, piled on the floor by the workbench. The Doll Lady wasn't much of a housekeeper. Lifting the lid of the top box, he found strands of hair. Straight, curly, coarse, and fine, in every color imaginable. He gathered a handful. Doll wigs, some of which looked as if they were made from real human hair.

With a low sound of disgust, Julien replaced the things. A sudden, alien gleam of metal beneath the doll hair caught his attention. He glanced over his shoulder toward the closed door, then reached into the box and lifted the object.

A Colt 45.

Julien smiled humorlessly. The Doll Lady liked to play with guns, too. Big ones. She was something, with her wet red hair and long legs.

From what he could see in the cabin -- no male clothing, no pictures of boyfriends or husbands on her nightstand -- she didn't have a man around. A lonely woman might be more gullible; give him an edge. If nothing else, living as a stripper these past few months had taught him the art of knowing just how much to show and how much to hide. The power of waiting until the right moment.

He ignored a sudden, surprising prick of guilt.

No other way out. He'd do what was necessary to fulfill the only promise that mattered anymore.

Julien stared at the gun and the inner rage flared. He had one chance left. Nothing and no one would get in his way.

* * *

The grumbling in her belly contested with the rumbling in the sky, and Dulcie gave up waiting any longer. Bobby was late. She was hungry, and all the food was inside. With the stripper.

Oh, she ought to be less judgmental and more tolerant. He was an exotic dancer ... and a sanitation engineer was still a garbageman, elbow-deep in refuse despite the twenty-dollar-a-word title.

She remembered Bobby's earlier words. Two hundred dollars an hour, for doing nothing more than taking off a few flimsy pieces of clothing. It said something about people's priorities. As a cop, she'd seen too many people who'd messed up their priorities and far too many hungry kids whose parents spent what little money they had on drugs.

But there was nothing she could do about that, not anymore. Dulcie forced the thoughts away, along with the faint disquiet that seemed to dog her lately, and pushed away from the rail. She walked to Les, who was sitting on a deck chair and looking glum. "I'm getting a bite to eat. Want anything?"

"Hot coffee sure would be nice," he answered.

"Bobby's late."

"You know how he is."

"Yeah ... but he's really late this time. Even for Bobby."

Les shrugged, then smoothed back the wisps of his thinning brown hair. "He said to wait. Something probably came up. Go on, Dulcie. Get yourself some food. Want me to come with you? I should probably check on the ... ah, young gentleman inside."

"Gentleman, my a -- " Dulcie bit back her rude comment and sighed. "No, don't bother getting up. I'll just nuke a few hot dogs and brew some coffee. But you could ask Lucille to try calling Bobby again."

Les nodded, and Dulcie mentally girded her loins and sallied forth to do battle with too much muscle, skin and machismo.

Poised just outside the cabin door, a hand on the frame above, she watched Julien Langlois walk from one end of the room to the other, unknowingly providing her with a glottis-popping view. Godamighty, it was as if one of Michelangelo's masterpieces had come down from its pedestal to prowl her boat.

His caged, restless pacing disturbed her. "Now isn't this a puzzle," she said, and he stopped short at the sound of her voice. "A few hours ago, you were right in the middle of a gun battle. For a guy who now has the power to put away one of the worst drug dealers in New Orleans, you should look a little more concerned about your lease on life."

There was no relief or gratitude on Langlois' face as he turned on her. Only fury. Naked, raw rage.

Years of training had taught her how to react to dicey situations: never give the other guy an edge. She marched into the cabin with determined strides and said, "I'm starved. How about you?"

"Get me off this boat."

"That's not possible."

"Listen up, I -- "

"No," Dulcie interrupted. She pushed past him, then turned at the inside door to the kitchenette. "You listen up. You saw Jacob Mitsumi murder a man tonight. The only chance you've got to keep on breathing is to stay right here and cooperate with the cops. I'd prefer your cooperation to be voluntary. But I'll tie you down on the bed if I have to."

He followed her into the kitchen. "Fun."

The answer came too pat; too automatically. She frowned, sharpening her attention, then leaned back against the counter.

"Could be fun," Dulcie said. "Until the circulation starts to go and your extremities turn numb." With a toss of her head, she swung around her hip-length ponytail until it lay like a rope down her side. She dropped an assessing gaze along his body, then raised it again. "That might kinda take the fun out of it, wouldn't you say?"

Shorts made the most of her legs, and while she often fretted her shoulders were wider than a woman's ought to be, she figured the stuff between looked female enough. Trim waist, a bit of breast, a butt still firm even after thirty years of fighting gravity. At about nineteen, she'd stopped wishing she were cute and petite, and learned to use what she had to her advantage. She intimidated most men.

Not Julien Langlois. He walked closer, with that menacing grace which seemed to underlie all his movements. Her heart thudded, and she suddenly understood what a hapless creature must feel as it stared into a pair of predatory eyes.

"So what's for dinner, chère?"

Me. "Hot dogs. No buns. I don't do buns."

His eyes looked nearly black, the pupils wide and round in the dim light. She came just to his nose and had to look up to meet his eyes. She wasn't used to that. He stood too close, but she didn't step back. Pointless. He filled the room.

"Pity," Langlois murmured. "Buns be the best part." With that, he turned and walked back into the cabin, leaving her with a nerve-wracking view of his buns.

Dulcie took in a lungful of air. She yanked open the microwave door with more force than necessary, but her reflection in the black glass of the door smiled back unwillingly.

"Dulcie!" Lucille shouted from somewhere up front.

"In the kitchen."

"Bobby's on the phone. He wants to talk to you."

So much for the hot dogs. She glanced through the door and into the cabin. Langlois was sitting in the corner shadows of her bed again, and if she hadn't known better, she'd have thought he wasn't wearing a stitch of clothing. She had a sudden urge to poke her finger into those thigh muscles to see if they were as hard as they looked.

She glanced down at the package of plump, red hot dogs in her hand and tossed them in the microwave. Bobby could cool his heels for a second or two. "When it beeps, take them out," she said, at the door to the cabin. "May as well make yourself useful, Langlois."

She made her way toward Lucille, who was sitting at the helm in the front room. Lucille blew a bubble with her gum as she handed over the cellular phone.

"Bobby, it's Dulcie. What's up? You're late."

"Sorry. Some trouble down here."

"What do you mean?" She looked up, meeting Lucille's dark eyes. She already didn't like the sound of this.

"Tell you later. I'm on my way. We should be there in the next fifteen minutes or so. Is Langlois giving you any trouble?"

"Oh, he's a charmer, Bobby. I'm not sure leaving him with me is such a good idea. I'm half-tempted to shoot him myself."

"I'm serious here. Is he giving you any trouble?"

"No," she answered, after a moment. "Not really, although he comes on a little ... aggressive."

"Think you can manage him, darlin'?"

"Yes." She spoke with more conviction than she felt.

"Good. Hang tight. I'll be there soon," he said, and Dulcie put down the phone.

"So," Lucille said promptly, a look of undisguised curiosity on her face. "Is he a charmer?"

"Like a snake."

"He's hot."

Dulcie frowned. "So's hell."

"Girl, I sure wouldn't kick him outta my bed."

"Lucy. Julien Langlois is a police witness, not a boy-toy. Oh, all right, so he is," she amended as Lucille started to laugh. "But that doesn't mean you have to slobber all over him. I'm going back in to finish heating up hot dogs and make coffee. Want anything?"

"Coffee's fine," Lucille said, grinning and bright-eyed. "Have fun!"

Fun. The word of the hour.

By the time she came back to the kitchen, Langlois had dumped the heated hot dogs into a dish and even made a pot of coffee. He'd found the ketchup and mustard, half a bag of potato chips, and a package of Oreo cookies. She took a deep breath as she came in, smelling freshly brewed coffee, salty hot dogs and chips, and wished to God he was wearing clothes.

"Just how I like to see a man. Barefoot and naked in the kitchen." She grinned as he turned. "Sorry. Couldn't resist."

He leaned back against the counter and crossed his arms over his chest. The sequins of the bow tie sparkled with each movement. "Got quite a mouth on you, chère."

She did, and knew it. It came from being tall and gawky, and long ago she'd decided if she couldn't be the belle of the ball, she'd be the wit. "Too many Bette Davis movies, I guess. Thanks for finishing this up. I just talked to Bobby -- Detective Halloran. He's on his way."

"I want to talk to him."

"I'm sure he'll want to talk to you, too. Sit down and eat. I'm going to bring some coffee to Les and Lucille."

"You gonna let me on deck?"

She started from the kitchen, coffeepot in one hand, cups in the other. At his question, she turned and peered at him. "Not dressed like that."

Then, remembering she had a T-shirt which might fit him, Dulcie put the coffeepot and cups down on the counter. She motioned him back to her cabin. "I think I have a temporary solution to your problem."

"I have a problem?"

She ignored his insinuation and after he'd followed her inside, she opened the cupboard door above her bed. She rummaged through disordered piles of colorful lingerie and flannel shirts, blue jeans, Lycra leggings and even, to her embarrassment, a wadded-up navy gabardine suit. She shoved the suit aside, hoping he hadn't noticed, and found at last what she looked for. She pulled out the New Orleans Saints T-shirt and tossed it at him. He caught it, like a good wide receiver, close against his chest.

Langlois held up the shirt, turning it until the name Halloran was plain to see, then looked her straight in the eye. After a moment, a blush heated the skin of her face. She hadn't thought how it would look to him, that she had one of Bobby's old T-shirts stashed away in her cupboard.

But it was none of his business, and why should she care what a stripper -- a stripper, for God's sake -- thought of her?

"You want it or not? If you prefer to sit around here and freeze your pecs off, that's fine with me. Just don't let the chattering of your teeth get on my nerves. Gets cold on the water at night."

"Here I was, hopin' we'd share a little body heat."

"Not on your life. And the water's cold too, so don't get any stupid ideas." He laughed and took a step toward her. Dulcie shot him a quick glare, one meant to keep him away. It didn't work. "I have a baseball bat under my bed. I mean it, Langlois."

If anyone knew what damage a baseball bat could do to a backbone, she did.

He came close enough to stand beside her; close enough for her to feel the warmth of his bare skin. A lingering scent of some earthy oil tickled her senses, and again the mingled odors of sweat and cigarette smoke assailed her nostrils.

She moved back a step. "You smell like a cathouse."

"How would you know?"

"None of your business. Put the shirt on, Langlois."

She moved away and made a show of rearranging the jumble on her workbench -- folding a few yards of pink lace and fingering the length of rolled velvet for Romeo and Juliet, who still lay unassembled beside it. By the time she'd turned around, he'd pulled the shirt on over his head. The yellow knit had faded to a mellow gold and the black fleur-de-lis looked patchy, but it fit him well enough. Maybe too well.

"Better, chère?"

Dulcie gazed at the word Saints emblazoned across his broad chest. The last 'S' had long since worn away, and she didn't miss the irony. She might have laughed, if she weren't afraid she might spontaneously combust at any moment. She looked back up at his handsome face. The shirt hadn't toned him down one iota.

"I'll be right back," she mumbled and then left, grabbing the coffeepot and cups on her way through the kitchenette.

Chapter Three

Dulcie escaped to the front deck, angry with herself for letting a man like Julien Langlois set her heart racing. She was the practical, cautious sort. Not the kind of woman to drool over a man she'd just met. Besides, nice women avoided men who took off their clothes for a living. While she might have a smart mouth and a chancy temper, she was a nice woman. Conservative, even, in her own way.

Maybe she wore her hair long because most other women wore theirs short, and maybe she sometimes wore three-inch heels just to make people stare, but she still considered herself an individualist, not a rebel. She'd never understood the lure of the bad boy, having seen too many wasted young lives to feel anything but frustration and anger for that sort of posturing.

Yet here she was, going all hot and nervous around a man who had nothing more going for him than a pretty face and a nice chest.

She took a deep breath, and smelled the promise of more rain in the wind blowing against her face. Just what she needed, to be stuck with a stripper on a boat barely big enough for the two of them to pass without touching.

She frowned. Her heart was still pounding. But really, this response to Langlois was explainable. It had been a while since she'd been with a man. A flower turned its face to the sun because that's what it did. A woman was attracted to a handsome man because her body was programmed to do so.

Fortunately, she had a brain to keep her body from doing something stupid.

Dulcie handed Les and Lucille their coffee, just as a pair of headlights swung around the corner of the dirt road and approached her pier. Bobby, finally.

But Les and Lucille at once put down their cups and reached for their guns. By habit, Dulcie did the same. She stopped herself in mid-motion, remembering she didn't wear a gun anymore.

An instant later, a white light slashed across the darkness. Lucille's powerful emergency lantern illuminated a familiar unmarked police car driving up to the end of the pier.

"Dammit, turn that off!" Bobby Halloran shouted from a distance.

Just as abruptly the light winked out, leaving them all momentarily blinded until their eyes adjusted to the darkness again. She listened as Bobby killed the engine. Car doors opened and slammed shut, and then came the sound of footsteps on the creaking wooden planks of the pier. Bobby had brought three other detectives with him, and Dulcie smiled when she recognized Adam Guidreau, another old friend she'd not seen in too long. She was even happier to see that Adam carried a grocery bag in each arm, along with a black gym bag slung over his shoulder.

Still wearing his damp clothes from earlier, Bobby strode to her side, with a nod for Les and Lucille. "Where's Langlois?"

"Sitting in the cabin."

"Good. Adam, bring those bags inside and keep Langlois in the cabin until I say otherwise."

No smile on his face, and his voice sounded grim. Dulcie stood straighter. "What's wrong?"

"You're not gonna like this, darlin'."

"Then say it fast."

"I need him to stay here a while."

Dulcie closed her eyes briefly. She should've known. This was the trouble he'd mentioned earlier. "Bobby, you said -- "

"I know what I said. Nothin' I can do about it now."

"Why?" But she knew. She recognized that edgy look in his blue eyes.

"Got us a body in a dumpster off Dauphine Street. Dark-haired, well-built, and nearly a dead ringer for Langlois." He grimaced. "Sorry."

How fortunate he'd gone into law enforcement and not a career that required tact. "Who was he?"

"A dancer at one of the gay bars on Bourbon. I'm thinking you should take this boat of yours for a long ride. Lay low for a while."

Silence followed. A bird cried out, high on the night wind against the wet, black sky. Dulcie stared at Bobby until finally he met her eyes.

"I'll do what I can to get Langlois to a safer place," he said. "But Mitsumi's got eyes and ears everywhere. It's gonna take time. That dead boy in the dumpster was a warning, and I'm taking no chances on my witness floating face-down in the Big Muddy."

He stepped away with a quick look at the cabin door, and moved toward the rail by the pier. "I want Red Dragon, Dulcie. I want him bad."

Dulcie said nothing. She didn't have to. Almost absently, she massaged away a twinge of pain. Broken backs sometimes healed. Hers had. But the ache for justice -- any kind of justice -- never really went away.

Red Dragon lay at the heart of many broken lives. She would never forget the bat against her back; the sound of breaking bones and the agonizing pain. The months in the hospital, wondering if she would ever walk again, be of use to anyone ever again.

"I know," she said after a moment. "And I appreciate this small chance you've given me to be a part of the investigation, although we both know I shouldn't be involved."

Dulcie tried to gauge the expression on Bobby's face, but saw only the old, familiar guilt. She caught his cold hand in hers and squeezed it. "You keep sharp, Bobby, and get that tattooed bastard. Think with your head, you hear me?"

He glanced away. "I hear you."

"I'll go ahead and take the boat out to Mike's tomorrow. He won't mind if we stay there a few days; he's in Atlanta right now. Did you bring Langlois his clothes?"

"Yeah. We brought his bag back from the Cracker." He looked back up at her. "I'm real sorry about the show, Dulcie. I know how important it is for you to sell those dolls of yours. I'll do what I can to get him out of your hair, but we're short on staff. You know how that is, and when it comes to Mitsumi, I gotta be careful who I trust." His hesitation spoke more than words. She understood. "That's why I thought your boat would be better than a safe house that every cop knows about."

"It's all right," Dulcie said quietly, knowing very well there was another, underlying reason for his actions. But she would say nothing more of it. "If I miss the show in New Orleans, there's one in Nashville next month I can make. Putting Mitsumi behind bars means more to me than selling a few dolls. With Les and Lucille on hand, everything will be fine."

"He's already made a legit statement. No problem there. We just have to keep him alive long enough to have him repeat it in front of a jury."

"It's more than keeping Langlois alive, Bobby; it's keeping him from running. He wants off the boat."

He didn't look surprised. "That's too damn bad."

Dulcie frowned, thinking it was too damn bad Bobby's entire case against Mitsumi rested on a stripper who wanted to disappear.

Bobby ran his hand over his jaw, an old habit he resorted to whenever frustrated or distracted. "Guess I better talk to my witness. Adam! Send Langlois out here."

A moment later Julien Langlois emerged on the front deck, Adam Guidreau behind him and the other two burly detectives planted firmly in front of the rail next to the pier. Julien still wore the Saints T-shirt and had slipped on a pair of shorts. He carried the raincoat he'd worn earlier and threw it at Bobby as he walked toward him.

"Hey, that's my lucky Saints shirt," Bobby said, catching the coat against his chest by reflex.

"Bobby, shut up," Dulcie muttered.

Langlois glanced at her before stepping up to Bobby, almost nose-to-nose. "I want off this boat."

"Can't let you go yet," Bobby said regretfully, a battle gleam in his eyes. "My job is to protect people like you. Like it or not, you need protecting."

"I don' need anythin' from you."

Dulcie retreated toward the rail. Bobby could deal with his witness without her help -- although Langlois didn't believe in beating around the bush and Bobby was hardly famous for his beatific temperament.

"Look. I have this problem." Bobby handed the raincoat to Adam. "A dead guy kind of problem. You probably knew him -- same line of business and all. He kinda even looks like you. Leastwise, he did, before somebody left his body in a dumpster like a piece of garbage. You following me, Langlois?"

"Not my problem. You got what you need. Let me go."

"You walk off this boat and you'll be dead in an hour," Bobby retorted. "Maybe you don't care if Mitsumi is behind much of the crack cocaine and violence on the streets of this city, or about the lives he's broken. But I want that scum off the street, and you're gonna help me do it in a court of law. You're staying right here and in one piece until I bag him. After that, I don't give a damn what you do."

During Bobby's angry tirade, Les and Lucille had come to stand on either side of Langlois, so that he was completely surrounded. Dulcie couldn't help but think the police weren't protecting Langlois' life as much as corralling him. She watched his handsome face, chilled by his lack of interest and emotion.

"You don' leave me much choice," Langlois said. "I'll stay, but you got no idea what it's gonna cost you."

"Sorry," Bobby retorted, with an absolute lack of sincerity. "I know being here isn't exactly helping out your bank account, but we've issued a warrant for Mitsumi's arrest. He's laying low right now, but we'll flush him out. Then he goes to jail, you testify, and after that you're free to get on with your life."

Langlois glanced at the two detectives standing between him and the pier, then at Les and Lucille. But he didn't look at Dulcie at all. "You can't touch a man like that and you know it. He'll be back."

"So I'll put him away again." Bobby's voice was flat. He and Langlois stared at each other.

Then Langlois raised his hands in a gesture of capitulation and stepped away. "You've convinced me. Now I'll be a good witness. Be on my best behavior."

Dulcie's suspicions snapped to full alert, even before she saw Bobby's frown. Langlois' sudden cooperation didn't feel right. This was a man with a game plan, and she would have to watch him even more closely than she'd first thought.

* * *

"What are you grinning about?" Dulcie demanded, facing Julien Langlois in the kitchenette a few moments after Bobby had left. "A little while ago, you looked about as happy as a crawfish in a boiling pot."

"Pralines."

"What?" Dulcie asked, staring as he picked up a package of candy from a grocery bag. He unwrapped the pecan and sugar confection and took a bite. Then he licked a crumb from the corner of his mouth. Slow and deliberate.

"I like pralines. That's what I'm grinnin' about. Okay by you, chère?"

Nice dodge. Oh, he was good. She wouldn't get any straight answers from him, any more than she had from Bobby. Which was too bad, because she wanted to know what had happened at the Cracker. She also wanted to know why Langlois was so determined to leave protective custody. He had to know the kind of danger he was in.

"You want one?" he asked when she didn't respond.

Dulcie reminded herself she didn't have to ask any questions, or try to make sense of it. She shouldn't get any more involved than she already was. All she needed to do was finish her dolls and make certain Langlois didn't jump ship. When she shook her head in answer to his question, he shrugged and ate the last bite of candy.

The sound of the engines cutting in broke the awkward silence, and Langlois reached out to brace himself against the side of the counter as the boat began to move. He looked at her. "Where we goin'?"

"We're heading out of Lake Pontchartrain for the bayou. Better hiding spots there, but it's too dark to go into the swamps tonight. I don't trust Lucille to know a tree branch from a shrimp lugger. We're getting a head start and tomorrow I'm driving. In the meantime, we may as well get you settled in."

She went back into the cabin, then poked around until she found a spare camper pillow beneath her bed and handed it to him. "Clear yourself a space on the floor." The floor wouldn't be very comfortable and it was likely to be damp. A drawback of living on a lake. "Sorry for the mess," she added.

"You live on this boat?"

"Most of the time. I have a bad back. The rhythm of the waves helps the pain. Don't know why, but it does."

In truth, she needed to get some sleep. Even the rise and fall of the waves wasn't helping the ache tonight. She found an extra blanket, a rather musty-smelling old Indian stripe affair. When she turned to hand it to him, she found that Langlois had moved to her workbench and picked up one of her porcelain baby dolls.

Dulcie frowned. Not because he was holding nearly a thousand dollars' worth of work, but because of the way he held it. He was a man used to handling infants; to supporting heavy heads on wobbly necks and cradling small, fragile bodies in his hands.

"Just like holding a real baby?" She had tried to make the doll as lifelike as she could, but she didn't have much experience with babies. Now, of course, she probably never would.

He glanced at her. "Live ones squirm more. You do good work. Is your real name Dulcie?"

For the first time since his arrival, her muscles relaxed a fraction in his presence and she managed a smile. "It's short for Dulcinea, but nobody calls me that except my father. He thought every girl should be named after a song." She shoved as many boxes as possible against the wall, so he would have enough room to stretch out on the floor. "Why he couldn't have called me Peggy Sue, I don't know. Instead, he had to name me after some hooker in a musical."

"A reformed hooker," Julien corrected, with an ironic lift of one dark brow. He returned the doll to the workbench, carefully.

Dulcie straightened and stared at him in surprise. "You know Man of La Mancha?"

"Yeah."

"Don't tell me ... you do a striptease to Don Quixote's 'Impossible Dream.'" A sudden vision of him, dressed as some sort of titillating knight tilting at windmills, flashed across her mind.

"Nope. I do jocks an' construction workers. Lots of the ladies like cowboys, too."

"Oh." She glanced away from that intense, watchful gaze of his.

Whatever did one talk about with a male exotic dancer? This was a little out of her usual realm of experience. The reality of sharing her space with a stripper who breathed sex appeal like most people breathed air was beginning to sink in.

Annoying. Dismaying.

Delicious.

"I'm thinking about making more coffee and having a little of that deli lasagna Bobby brought. I'm getting tired of hot dogs." Food was safe, she decided, so long as she didn't mention buns again. "Want some lasagna?"

"Sure."

How polite he had become. No more radiating brute male auras, no more aggressive sexuality. It appeared her Cajun conundrum was rethinking his earlier hostile approach. Or else he had actually begun to cooperate.

Moving into the kitchen, she called over her shoulder, "Can I ask you a personal question?"

After a moment, he answered from the cabin. "Depends."

Since he hadn't exactly said no, Dulcie asked anyway. "Why did you become a stripper?"

"Easy money."

The answer she'd expected. The easy, pat answer. She rummaged around in the back of the cupboard, shoving aside jars and tin canisters of spices as she looked for the coffee filters. She wondered why she had three jars of cumin but no cinnamon. Then she wondered why she had any spices at all, since she didn't cook.

"I suppose there isn't much to swiveling your hips and unbuttoning your pants in front of a room full of drooling women."

Julien had followed her again into the kitchen, and seated himself at the fold-out table. He watched her. "Why do you ask?"

Dulcie dropped a filter, then bent to scoop it up again, annoyed that he'd turned her own interrogation against her. "Just curious."

Now that so much of him wasn't exposed, she found herself focusing on his face and mannerisms rather than his distracting body. She guessed he was in his early thirties, and presumably it was his years of fast living that had added interesting lines to a face that might otherwise be too pretty. Which brought her back to the main question nagging at the back of her mind.

She began putting away the groceries. As casually as possible, she asked, "What were you doing in the Cracker? Not your usual territory, I'm willing to bet."

"Had a show."

"At the Cracker?" Dulcie stared at him as he tipped the back of his chair against the wall.

"I don' ask why, chère, just go where I'm paid."

"You're lucky one of those biker boys didn't rip your face off. Last time I was in there, black leather and chains was the general attire, not G-strings and sequins." She paused, then asked quietly, "Did you know who was there?"

She shouldn't have asked, but intuition warned her that he wasn't telling the truth. Bobby didn't trust him, either. He wouldn't say why, but she figured it was for much the same reason: Jacob Mitsumi, Juan Hernandez, and a stripper named Julien Langlois all together in the Cracker just didn't add up. But Julien revealed nothing to clue her in on whether he was lying.

"I knew."

"So you walked half-naked into the meanest bar in the Quarter, knowing one of the most dangerous drug dealers in New Orleans was there." She shook her head and placed the carton of lasagna in the microwave. "Habits like that, my friend, will get you killed."

"Halloran put you up to these questions?"

"Bobby asked me to put you up in my houseboat for a few days. That's all." Dulcie looked away from Julien's dark eyes and began to measure out the scoops of coffee. She took a deep breath, more to settle her nerves than anything else. "I had my own reasons for saying yes. Jacob Mitsumi is a special concern of mine."

"Why's that, chère?" he asked, as she poured water into the coffeemaker. She admired the cool tone of his voice, although she noticed his Cajun lilt was more pronounced than usual and he'd said dat instead of that.

"A metal pin in my back and a nine-inch scar might have something to do with it," Dulcie answered, turning again to face him. She folded her arms over her chest. "Two years ago, I tangled with his men during a bust. One of them took a baseball bat to my back -- shattered a few vertebrae. I was lucky to walk again, but my days in law enforcement are over."

Julien's mouth tightened and he leaned over the table. "You used to be a cop?" She nodded. After a moment he added, "Sorry ... 'bout what happened to you."

"So am I," Dulcie replied, as the microwave began beeping. "And the only reason I agreed let you stay here is because I want that bastard in jail." She slid the carton of steaming lasagna onto the table, then raised a brow at the dubious expression on his face. "Allons manger, mon ami."

He flashed a sudden, devastating smile. "Chère, if you an' me are together for much longer, I'm gonna have to teach you how to cook."

Dulcie tried to ignore her thudding heart; tried telling herself this sudden dampening of her palms meant nothing. "You cook? Oh, my. Do you do laundry, too?"

Julien quirked a brow. "In my line of business? There's few clothes to wash, non?"

In spite of herself, she smiled. "Touché, Langlois. This round goes to you."

While he picked at the reheated lasagna, Dulcie brought more coffee and the tray of hot dogs, chips, and cookies to Les and Lucille, making sure they were comfortably settled in the front room. By the time she came back, he'd cleared away his own paper plate, napkin and plastic serving ware.

She made a pretense of ignoring him as she ate, and when she was done and had cleaned up after herself, she sat down at her workbench and began the lengthy chore of sewing buttons on the doll costumes. She needed to finish the baby dolls before she could begin on Romeo and Juliet.

Julien sat on the floor, cross-legged, looking through the few magazine and books she had lying about. She didn't imagine he'd find any of it of interest; all she had on the boat were a few Agatha Christie mysteries and a haphazard collection of craft magazines, mostly doll-related.

He seemed to have forgotten her presence, but Dulcie hadn't forgotten his. Even with her back to him, she knew exactly where he sat. It was if her woman's radar honed in on his male heat and she felt him behind her, a solid wall of presence. She hunched further over the doll's dress, as if doing so kept him at a safe distance.

"Need help?"

A soft movement, the faintest lingering scent of musk, and Julien leaned on the worktable beside her. She glanced sideways, seeing his long fingers, strong hands, and bare, muscular forearms.

"No."

"Sittin' around makes me crazy. Gotta be somethin' I can do."

"Can you sew, Julien?" That would shut him up and send him as far away from her as possible.

"Some. Buttons an' mending. Need buttons sewn on?"

At that, Dulcie turned to stare. Six foot three inches of raw male, offering to sew buttons on pink, frilly doll dresses. She searched the dark face, the shadows of his eyes, seeking some flicker of amusement or mockery. But all she saw, besides an understandable boredom, was genuine interest. "Are you serious?"

"'Course I'm serious, Dulcinea."

"Don't call me that!"

He laughed, shifting closer until he brushed against her. "Suits you, chère. Dulcinea Quinn, all soft and hard."

She dropped her gaze, before he could see how he affected her. Godamighty, she could slam petty hoods up against the side of a car, but the sound of her name on his Cajun tongue made her feel hot and spicy, liquid and woman and weak.

"Great. A poet, too," she managed to retort, keeping her voice cool and amused. "You cook, do laundry, sew on buttons, and spout poetry. Shame on me, for thinking you just an ornamental sort of guy."

He held out a hand and, when she still did nothing, wriggled his fingers suggestively. "It's gonna be a long few days, chère, an' I be needin' to keep my hands busy."

She hesitated, entertaining a hot and wicked thought of what else could keep those beautiful hands busy, then slapped the spool of thread in his palm.

His lips quirked upwards. "Needle."

She plunked the packet of needles in his palm.

"Buttons."

The button cards followed, three of them, each carrying four pink pearl buttons. Dulcie stared at his outstretched palm, momentarily baffled, and then looked up into his eyes.

"Scissors," he coaxed.

She laughed at last, unable to resist this wry teasing. "You missed your calling in life, Julien. You have hands like a surgeon."

She placed the stork-shaped embroidery scissors in his hand, her fingers lingering longer than need be on his. A brief second passed in silence before she dropped her hand to her lap, but it seemed an eternity. She couldn't look up at him, shocked at how easy it had been to touch him.

"You know what I'm supposed to do here. I lean over, close like this," he whispered, bending down so that his lips were just inches from her cheek. "An' then I ask you to come play doctor."

Dulcie turned her head a fraction, seeing from the corner of her eye the beginning of a dark stubble on his face. She wanted to reach up and touch him there, too, and feel the contrast of smooth skin and coarser hair.

"Gotta be careful, chère, around bad boys like me. Say nice things like that, an' you just askin' for trouble."

Maybe she was. The insidious, horrible thought stunned her. How could she, sensible Dulcie Quinn, find a snake like Julien Langlois even remotely attractive? Obviously, she'd spent far too much time holed up in this houseboat.

"Thanks for the warning. Let me rephrase. How about if I say you've got a musician's hands?"

"Better. But it won't work for me."

She felt the brush of his breath against the skin of her cheek, and for a brief moment she felt squeezed between a flare of panic and a lurch of excitement. Then he stepped back and lifted the dainty scissors, dangling it from the tip of his finger.

"You'll have to trust me with the real thing, chère. Musician's hands or no, I'm never gonna fit my finger inside this little hole."

Her desire fizzled, replaced by a cold lump of fear. He was asking her for shears. Long, pointed stainless steel shears that could inflict much more damage than blunted embroidery scissors.

Dulcie looked up again, meeting his dark eyes. If he were going to try and escape it might as well be now, when she was prepared for it.

She knew she'd hesitated too long when his eyes flattened, and the muscles around his nose and mouth tightened. Julien knew she distrusted him.

"Here," Dulcie said at last, handing him a pair of gleaming shears from her workbench drawer. Wordlessly, he took them from her. With his free hand, Julien reached around to the kitchenette and pulled one of the folding chairs to the workbench. He sat down, draped the tiny dresses across his thighs, and proceeded to thread the needle.

In spite of herself, Dulcie couldn't help but watch as he wet the pink thread with his tongue and inserted it through the hole of the needle with one, sure push. He looked up then, intercepting her stare, and smiled. An easy, slow smile that grooved his cheeks and wreathed his eyes in laugh lines.

"I come from a big family. My mère, she was busy with the farm an' my old man worked the oil rigs. Us older kids had to fend for ourselves an' take care of the little ones. I learned real quick how to cook, do my own laundry, an' sew on my own buttons."

Dulcie didn't doubt he spoke the truth about this, at least. He certainly could thread a needle and the buttons didn't give him pause at all as he popped each one off its card. She watched him a moment longer, just to be sure he knew what he was doing. But his movements were so quick and deft that she wondered if he sewed on his own buttons after overexcited females ripped them off.

With him attending to the detail work, Dulcie concentrated on putting together Romeo and Juliet's kidskin leather bodies. The smaller the doll, the more time-consuming she found the assembly and costuming. She'd prefer to do it while anchored at a pier, not chugging along on Lake Pontchartrain under Lucille's heavy-handed steering.

But in only six days ...

No. She had all the time in the world, now. Time for dolls, at least. Not the real thing. She looked for a moment at the baby doll Julien had picked up earlier, and felt a familiar rush of anger and sadness.

How she had wanted to have a baby. She'd always expected that one day she'd find the right guy, toss her birth control pills in the trash, and get pregnant. Take a few months off from the job, maybe work part-time. Do the Mother of the Year thing.

But that wouldn't happen, not now.

She looked away from the doll, angry that she'd allowed herself to feel self-pity again. She thought she'd gotten over this months ago. Why had the anger and discontent all come rushing back now?

Then her gaze settled reluctantly on Julien Langlois, where he straddled the chair with his muscular legs, holding pink lace and batiste in one hand while he sewed on buttons with the other.

Just what she needed in her life right now. Another good-looking, vital man to remind her that as a woman, she no longer quite measured up.

Dulcie sat straighter, and with an effort directed her energies to assembling her star-crossed lovers.

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Absolute Trouble

Cover

Publisher: InkBooks
ISBN: 978-1-4524-2614-3

Buy Ebook: SmashwordsBarnes & NobleAmazonKobo • Apple: US · UK · CA · FR · AU · DE

Book Description: A drug dealer's murder forces ex-cop Dulcie Quinn to hide the reluctant murder witness -- Cajun exotic dancer Julien Langlois, a man with more than a few secrets of his own -- on her houseboat in the steamy Louisiana bayou. And from the moment she sets eyes on Julien, Dulcie knows he's going to be nothing but absolute trouble.

Originally published by Avon Books in 1998, under the name Michelle Jerott.

"Sizzling!" – Publishers Weekly