The third book in the Prescience Series is coming soon!
New Orleans, Louisiana
Kayla Renault presented her invitation to the man stationed in the small lobby just inside the door. She had been so sure the doorman would yank her mask off and rip up her invitation. Kayla had never been good at concealing her excitement, and she was certain the word fraud was tattooed on her forehead. When the man nodded and allowed her to enter the building, more attendants guided her and the other incoming guests toward the ballroom. Once inside the grand room, she released her held breath.
With a happy sigh of relief, she stuffed the embossed half sheet of cardstock into her dinky, little black purse. When she got back home that night--or early the next morning--she would tuck it into a large manila envelope for safekeeping in anticipation of framing the invite. The bright colors and creative theme were enough to treasure the keepsake, but she'd also heard that older Mardi Gras ball invitations could be worth a lot of money. This particular invitation was rare, making the little piece of paper that much more priceless. Maybe in fifty years, she'd be a rich woman if she could find a buyer. There would be a very limited market for such an item.
Kayla had no savings, a beat-up wreck of a car, and a shabby little apartment in one half of a duplex in the Irish Channel. Her people had never had much. She worked for a privately held business that did well for the owners but paid their employees as little as they could get by with. The rich kept getting richer, and the poor kept struggling to survive. Still, it was the best job she'd ever had.
She didn't have much, but she did own a brand new gown appropriate for the occasion. Her boss had loaned her the company credit card for the purchase, a ball-length gown with a slightly full skirt. The silver and gold embellishments on the blush-pink fabric glittered in the muted lights. Its boat-neck design showed off just enough skin. She proudly wore the diamond-encrusted choker her grandmother had left her, the last of the Renault jewels. Sure, she could have sold the diamonds and had enough to live on for a few years, but with her dying breath, her grandmother had made her promise never to let them out of the family. The Renaults were what the old folks used to call land poor.
Kayla caught a glimpse of herself in a floor-to-ceiling mirror. She was glowing from the inside out. The gown made her feel beautiful and the diamonds made her feel classy. Usually, she enjoyed being in the center of activity, reveled in standing out from the crowd, but once she started moving among the partiers, too many eyes were cast her direction. Tonight, she didn't want to be noticed. Maybe her choice of dress had been a little too brilliant. Maybe the diamond choker was a little too eye-catching.
She touched the mask on her face, just to make sure it was still in place.
Her boss had finagled her the invitation so that she could be somewhere she wasn't supposed to be: spying on the man's wife at a Mardi Gras ball that few people knew about. So secret was the organization that sponsored the event that its existence was rarely talked about, even in the upper echelons of New Orleans society. The group didn't float a parade as most of the Carnival organizations did. It kept itself to itself. She'd never heard of the secret society until her boss had told her about it, and Kayla had lived in New Orleans all her life.
She would have felt privileged to be present for the season's most secretive and special occasion, but she wasn't there for fun. She was getting paid a huge bonus to do her boss's dirty work for him. Caden suspected his wife was cheating on him, and as far as Kayla was concerned, there was a special place in hell for a cheater.
Kayla scanned the crowd. How was she supposed to spot the woman if everyone wore masks? The only thing she had to go on was a description of the woman's ball gown. It wasn't much to work with. Every woman in the room wore a gown that floated and swirled around her in crystals and sequins.
She was grateful for her own mask. No one would question her presence once she got past the big, ugly bouncer at the front door. And that's what he was, no matter how much the event's sponsors dressed him up. A black tie didn't hide the man's background or his true character. He had the ways of the street written all over him. Kayla knew what that looked like when she saw it. She would bet money the man had a few ounces of the good stuff on him. Did the rich still do cocaine at parties, or had they moved on to something else? Maybe one day when she was rich, she'd find out what rich people did. Maybe she'd make up her own rules for being rich. One day.
Someone might notice her if her gaze lingered too long on one person, so she glanced around the large room searching for an out-of-the-way nook where she could observe without being observed. The clandestine nature of her mission sent a sizzle of anticipation through her. This task was so much more exhilarating than the spreadsheets and performance reports she worked with at the office. Her mission was also sleazy and somewhat distasteful. The knot of mixed emotions tightened in her stomach. But she needed the money, so she hadn't refused. She'd taken the boss's card and bought the nicest gown she could purchase on borrowed credit.
She'd arrived not too late and not too early, and the ballroom was already filling with people laughing, chatting, and drinking. The orchestra had just started tuning up, so no one was on the dance floor yet. Would she get the opportunity to dance? She hoped so. But she didn't know how she would do that without bringing unwanted attention on herself.
Kayla snagged a fluted glass of champagne from a passing waiter and backed into an alcove. Which happened to be occupied.
A deep male voice admonished her. "Careful of the shoes. They're not mine."
She glanced down at a pair of rather large feet encased in shiny, black patent. "Sorry." She started to ease out of the alcove, but a warm hand wrapped around her elbow.
"There's room enough in here for two. So... Who are you spying on?"
Her heart clutched. She wheezed her denial through constricted throat muscles. "I'm not spying--"
"There are only two reasons for hiding in the shadows at an event like this... You're avoiding someone, or you're spying on someone."
"So who are you spying on, then?"
He came out of the shadows from behind a heavy, velvet curtain. His dark eyes scanned the room beyond the alcove. He nodded toward a man halfway across the room. "Him."
It took her a moment to figure out which dancing socialite was his special target of interest. She squinted at the man and then at the woman with him. The gown the woman wore. That was the gown she'd been looking for. No one else in the room had dared to wear such a bold in-your-face red.
Was this guy serious? Was he messing with her? Did he know why Kayla was there?
She pressed her lips together. Her boss had warned her. Under no circumstances was she to reveal her connection to him or the nature of her clandestine mission. He hadn't threatened to fire her, but that was understood.
Caden Fairchild exuded just the tiniest hint of dangerously restrained energy, just a hint of a power that, if unleashed, could crush an unwary soul. Caden scared her just a little bit. Truth be told, he should probably scare her more than he did.
The man in the alcove nudged her elbow and pointed toward a balcony she hadn't noticed. "The view might be better from up there." He grabbed her hand and pulled her halfway out of their hiding spot.
"Wait a minute. I'm not going anywhere with you."
He turned, and his intense gaze seemed to stare straight into her soul. "You don't trust me?"
"I don't know you."
"You don't know anyone here, do you?"
Kayla tugged until he released her hand.
"Luke Kingston." His eyes glistened with mischief. "Now, you know my name." There was definitely a challenge in his attitude. "You are watching the woman with the man I'm watching, aren't you?"
How had he come to that conclusion? She hadn't even seen the woman until he'd pointed out the man she was with.
"No, I am not."
"Yes, you are."
Who was this guy? Who did he think he was? He was obviously someone who didn't belong at the ball any more than she did.
"What would happen if I caused a scene?"
"That wouldn't be a good idea. You'd get kicked out of here, but I wouldn't. I'd fade into the background. But you? In that dress? You stand out." All of this said without any expression. Flat. Like the Mississippi Delta.
Her insides pinched. She had worn the wrong dress.
His hand cupped her elbow. "If you hang around here much longer, the members of this club are gonna start questioning your presence. They will realize you're not attached to any of them. This is a tight, closed group. The masks are only for show. Not for hiding their identity."
The masks of the partygoers were decorated with brilliant stones. Large feathered plumes. Swirls of color. Gold and silver and bronze glittered on black backgrounds. All of them designed to outdo the others. Ostentatious. Garish. And expensive. The stones were, no doubt, real gems. The glitter was probably crushed precious metals. None of them were cheap masks a tourist could purchase in the Quarter at a souvenir shop. Like hers.
At least, she'd chosen a mask with a black background. Her boss could have warned her about that quirk of the event.
The stranger with his hand wrapped around her elbow was right. She would be exposed if she wasn't careful. The knowledge pricked the bubble of her bravado. The bubble burst, and it was all she could do to keep from panicking and running for the door. But she couldn't. She had a job to do.
Kayla glanced up at the balcony Luke had indicated. It did look like a prime spot to view the entire ballroom floor without being noticed. "Okay. Let's go."
He released her elbow and grabbed her hand, pulling her toward a corner of the room. They ascended a staircase with ornately wrought iron banisters. She would have loved to stop and savor the details, but Luke didn't slow down. His long strides made it difficult for her to keep up in her full skirt.
At the top of the stairs, she followed him along a hallway empty of other partiers. They finally stopped when the wall broke into a balcony overlook. The railing matched the beautiful wrought iron of the staircase banister. She placed a hand on the railing, and the metal cooled her warm palm.
Luke crossed the short, open balcony and leaned against the wall on the other side, peeking around the corner, looking down at the crowd below. She studied the partiers from her vantage point on her side of the balcony.
"There they are." He pointed toward the couple in question.
"Who is he?"
"You don't know?"
She squinted. She'd been too vain to wear her glasses, convincing herself that she'd be able to see just fine without them. Her correction wasn't that bad. She could still see well enough to drive.
"No, I don't think so." She pulled back into the shadows when someone glanced her way. "How would I know if I did know him? He's wearing a mask."
"If you don't already know him, you probably don't want to know who he is. Who is she?"
Maybe he didn't want to know, and maybe she didn't have to tell him anything. But she answered anyway. "My boss's wife." The answer slipped out before she could stop her mouth from moving. She wasn't supposed to tell anyone why she was there.
"Are you sure that's your boss's wife and not his mistress?"
Suddenly, she wasn't so sure. Had she ever met Caden's wife? No. He'd never mentioned her before. She'd actually been surprised he was married.
He'd shown her pictures of the woman just the other day when he'd first approached her about the job. The photographs were not proudly displayed in his office. He'd pulled them out of a folder on his desk. Maybe he had her spying on his girlfriend. Or someone else's girlfriend.
"So the man she's dancing with isn't your boss?"
Of course not. If he were her boss, wouldn't she know his name?
"Does he know your boss?"
How would she know? She tilted her head and raised her eyebrows.
"Okay, fine. You don't have to tell me anything. I get it. But I'm going to tell you... Her name is Lacy LeCroix. She's not married. She's someone's girlfriend. Well, girlfriend is kind of a loose word for it. He owns her."
"What do you mean? Is she that man's girlfriend or not?" Kayla had never liked word games. Say what you mean, and mean what you say. She hated doublespeak.
"No, she's not his girlfriend." He nodded toward the man he was watching. "She's someone else's girlfriend. Someone who won't take it too well when he finds out she's out with another man. Unless he made her go out with that man."
"He made her go out with that man?" Could a man make his girlfriend go out with someone else? If he could, that was wrong. So wrong.
"Like I said, he owns her."
"So why don't you tell it?"
"Now is not the time or place."
When would there be a good time or place? Kayla never intended to see Luke again. He felt dangerous. Even more dangerous than Caden.
Her heart raced. She peered at the man across the way from her. A little bit of danger dressed up in a tux looked very appealing to her. Maybe because he seemed to be everything she wasn't.
"If she's been sleeping with your boss, your boss has a great big target on his back. So who is he?"
Caden had a target on his back? Did he know?
"Why do you want to know who he is? What are you? A cop?"
His eyes flashed with a warning. "You don't want to know."
There appeared to be a lot of things he didn't think she wanted to know.
"Your boss has played you."
Now, what was she going to tell Caden when he asked her what she'd seen? Should she reveal to him that she knew the woman wasn't his wife?
Luke answered her internal question as if he could read her mind. "Tell him what you saw. Nothing more. Nothing less. You saw the woman...call her his wife...dancing with another man."
"Am I supposed to know who that man is? What's he going to do about another man dancing with that woman? He'll want to know his name, and I won't be able to give it to him." Unless Luke told her the man's name.
Luke grunted. "Well now, that's not your problem, is it?"
But it kind of was her problem. Caden would make it her problem.
"I'll tell you what your real problem is..."
She waited. He apparently needed a nudge to continue. "So?"
"You need to find another job. Fast. You're mixed up with bad people who are going down and who will pull you down with them. If you're hanging around, it won't look good. You might have to answer some hard questions."
He'd just answered one of her earlier questions. The guy was, indeed, a cop.
Luke nodded toward the ballroom. Disgust registered on his face. "Look at them." He didn't mean the couple. "There's a murderer, a rapist, and a drug dealer down there, and the rest of them all act as if they don't know it. As if they're used to hanging around with criminals."
He glanced her way. His eyes told her he meant it.
She shivered. Had she ever been in the same room with a murderer or a rapist or a drug dealer?
His jaw tightened. "Well, I can't be sure. They all have masks on. But that's the odds. There are some in every crowd. At least...this type of crowd."
What type of crowd did he mean?
He waved a finger at the people below them. "The others? The men all cheat on their taxes and cheat on their wives. The women? They just want a rich man to support them."
"You have a pretty sarcastic attitude, don't you? Not all women are like that."
"They are at this party." He stared down at the crowd.
"That's kind of pessimistic."
"A pessimist is never disappointed."
She studied his profile. A strong chin jutted out from behind a mass of wavy hair. Why would he wear his hair like that to an event like this? If he was a member of law enforcement, wouldn't the way he wore his hair make him stand out? He looked about as street as the bouncer downstairs. His tux suggested he had money. His appearance countered that he was a bad boy with an attitude who'd crashed a rich people party.
"Do you always see the worst in people?" The question popped out of her mouth. Yeah, she was curious about the man. "I mean...I think most people are basically decent...until they're pushed."
"People are born with an inclination to be wrong. They have to work at being decent."
Was he suggesting she had to work at it? She had always thought she was naturally nice to people. She'd always wanted to do the right thing. It's just that circumstances sometimes got in the way of that. Like trying to make a living in an expensive world.
Kayla didn't agree with his assessment of humankind. She was willing to give most people the benefit of the doubt when she first met them. Like this guy. Even though his sarcastic, negative attitude should turn her off, the guy was attractive in a fascinatingly dark, intense sort of way. Yeah, she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.
Enough chatting with dark and handsome. She had work to do.
She pulled her phone from her bag, zoomed in as much as she could, and took a dozen or so photos of the dancing couple in rapid succession.
He rushed forward and shoved her hand down. "What are you doing?"
"My job. What I was paid for."
A booming voice startled them from down the hall. "Hey, what are you two doing up here? The second floor is off-limits tonight."
Kayla stuffed her phone down the neck of her gown until it rested in the saddle of her bra right between her boobs.
Luke pulled his mask off, lifted hers, and froze. She gasped. Their eyes locked. Never had she seen such intensity in another person's eyes, flickers of light dancing against dark irises and dilated pupils. He pulled her into his arms and kissed her. A flash fire raced across her skin. Never had she reacted to a man's kiss so strongly. Her mind told her to push him away and kick him where it counts. Her body argued with her mind to hold up a minute and allow the moment to drag on a little longer.
The loud, bass voice demanded their attention. "You can't be up here."
Luke pulled away from her and addressed the approaching security guard. "Oh. Sorry. We just wanted a little privacy."
The security guard hooked a thumb toward the stairs down the hall behind him. "Take it back downstairs...or leave and get a room. You can't do that up here."
Luke smirked. "Maybe we already have."
She had to give it to Luke. He could think on his feet. And he had guts. His playful attitude toward the security guard surprised her. Maybe he wasn't all darkness and shadows. Maybe there was a wicked sense of humor lurking beneath that serious demeanor.
"Come on, Baby. Let's get some more champagne. And get outta here." He slurred his suggestion as if he'd already had enough to drink.
That sounded like a great idea to Kayla. She played along and burped before she headed for the stairs.
Luke slid his arm around her waist and escorted her to the first floor. Was the physical contact just for show? For the guard's benefit? She could feel the guard's eyes on her back as she descended the stairs.
They were playing a game. A deliciously exciting, slightly dangerous game.
He whispered near her ear. "Were you acting? Or was that real?"
She pressed her lips together and kept moving. Didn't he know grabbing a woman and kissing her without her permission was wrong? Had she given off any vibes that she wanted the kiss? No, she hadn't. Had she leaned into him? She couldn't be sure. He hadn't exactly given her much time to say no. The action was impulsive and designed to cover their infraction of the house rules. Nothing more. Nothing less. So why was he teasing?
Still, the kiss was something else. It had sent fire racing through her.
"Because it sure felt like you kissed me back. You might be having too much fun. You should probably take your job a little more seriously."
Was he serious? He sounded serious. How much more serious could she get? This was a weirdly, hysterically wild situation. A story she could tell her grandchildren one day. It seemed so fabulously unreal.
Kayla rolled her eyes at him.
She wasn't done with Luke. Her brain fired with a dozen or more questions about the man he'd been watching. She had to keep Luke engaged in conversation a little while longer.
At the bottom of the stairs, Kayla scanned the room in search of a water loaded with a tray of drinks. Her parched throat cried for refreshment. Her empty stomach rumbled for something to digest. When she turned back to ask Luke if he wanted to find food and drink, he had disappeared into the crowd.