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The light from the computer screen gave a harsh cast to Craig Branson's angular features, yet he couldn't conceal the feeling of elation surging inside himself.
He'd only been eight when his twin brother had been cruelly ripped away from him, but on that terrible day, he'd vowed that he would find the killers and bring them to justice. Now, finally, he had a lead on one of the shooters in a gangland assassination twenty-two years ago.
The restaurant where crime boss Jackie Montana and two of his men had been gunned down had been full of witnesses. Many of the patrons had identified the killers from their mug shots. They were two hired hit men named Joe Lipton and Arthur Polaski who had taken jobs all over the U.S.
Although the cops knew the assassins' names, the men fled the scene and disappeared from the face of the earth. Now Craig knew why.
Unable to sit still, he stood and strode out of his office, then paced into the hall of the brick ranch house where he'd lived in Bethesda, Maryland, for the past few years.
It was in an upscale neighborhood just outside the nation's capital, the perfect place for the career he'd started planning even before Sam's funeral. He would make sure he was tough enough, smart enough and well trained enough to find his brother's killers. To that end he'd graduated from college at George Washington University, then enlisted in the army and gone to officer-candidate school right after basic training. From there he got his first choice of assignments, the military intelligence service. After learning everything he could about investigative techniques, he returned to civilian life and started his own detective agency.
When his dad died nine months after Mom, he inherited all the money he'd ever need-if you considered his unassuming lifestyle. He had no family. No wife and children, because he knew he was lacking something that most people took for granted-the ability to connect with others on a deep, personal level. He craved those things with a fierce sense of loss because he'd had them with Sam. When his brother had been ripped from him, his anchor to the human race had been severed.
Although that was a pretty dramatic way to put it, he understood the concept perfectly. Other people formed close friendships and loving relationships. He'd never been able to manage either, although he thought he faked it pretty well. He had friends. He'd had physically satisfying affairs with women, but he had always known that marrying one of them would mean cheating her out of the warmth and closeness she deserved.
Failing that, he'd focused on his work, partly because it was intensely rewarding to put bad guys away and partly because it was a means to an end.
He would find who had killed his brother, and he would make sure they would pay for what they had done.
He'd traveled around the U.S., and he maintained contacts with police departments all over the country. One of those contacts had just paid off big-time.
He walked back to his desk, activated the printer and made a copy of the report that had come in from a lieutenant named Ike Broussard in the New Orleans P.D. According to the detective, the body of one of the men who had shot up that restaurant, Arthur Polaski, had just turned up dead on private property outside the city. The local police had identified him by dental records, and the murder weapon was with him.
A very neat package. Maybe too neat.
Craig skimmed the report again. Polaski was beyond his reach, but that didn't mean there would be no justice for Sam. The hit man hadn't been operating on his own. Every indication was that he'd been working for a local New Orleans bigwig named John Reynard.
As a boy, Craig had focused on bringing Polaski and Lipton to justice. But as he'd matured, he'd come to understand that the shooters were just hired thugs working for someone who wanted a rival crime boss dead. Now Polaski had led Craig to John Reynard.
Craig worked into the evening, collecting information on his quarry. Finally, when he saw that it was almost ten, he got up and stretched, then fixed himself a ham-and-cheese sandwich, which he took back to the computer, along with a bottle of beer. One advantage of living alone was that he didn't have to stick to regular meal times, eat at the table or stop work while he fueled up. Once he knew about Reynard, it was easy to find a boatload of information on the man. He was in his early sixties and owned an import-export business in New Orleans, probably a front for drug smuggling. But the cops apparently didn't look into his company too carefully, undoubtedly because Reynard was very generous with his bribes and also contributed significant amounts to local charities. Public record presented him as an upstanding citizen, although it was interesting that two of his former wives had died while married to him.
Craig took a swallow of beer as he came to an intriguing piece of information. Reynard was about to tie the knot again. In the society pages of the Times-Picayune, there were pictures of him with his bride-to-be at several charity events. She was a very lovely blonde woman named Stephanie Swift who looked to be half the age of the man she was going to marry.
Craig shook his head. He could see why Reynard was attracted to the woman. But what did she see in him?
As Craig studied her wide-set eyes, her narrow nose, her nicely shaped lips and the blond hair that fell in waves to her shoulders, he felt an unexpected jolt of awareness. Something about her drew him, and he struggled to dismiss the feeling of attraction to her. He didn't want to like her. What kind of a woman would marry a lowlife like Reynard? Could it be that she was too stupid or unaware to understand what kind of man her fiancé was? Or maybe she was attracted to his money, and she didn't care what the man was really like.
He made a snorting sound, then warned himself to stay objective. That usually wasn't a problem for him, but apparently it was with Ms. Swift, and letting himself feel anything for her would be a big mistake.
With another shake of his head, he clicked away from a smiling picture of her with Reynard and went back to her dossier. Apparently she came from a family that had been prominent in the city. But the Swifts must have fallen on hard times because now she spent her days in the dress shop that she owned in the French Quarter.
Well, she'd be able to give up that business and get back to her society lifestyle once she married Reynard.
But maybe in the meantime she'd be useful to Craig. What if he got to know her before he made a move on Reynard? Yes, that might be the way to go.
The bell over the shop door jingled, and Stephanie Swift looked up. It was a delivery man, carrying a long cardboard box. When she saw the logo on the package, she stiffened, but she kept her voice pleasant as she spoke to the deliveryman. "Thanks so much."
He nodded to her as he set the package down on the counter and left her Royal Street shop.
Before the bell stopped jingling again, her assistant, Claire Dupree, came out of the back room, where she'd been unpacking merchandise that had arrived from New York that morning. Claire was a pretty, dark-haired young woman who wanted to get into fashion, and she'd offered to work for Stephanie at minimum wage for the chance to learn the business. She was a quick study, and Stephanie had come to rely on her.
"You've been expecting your wedding dress. Is that it?" she asked.
Claire eyed the box. "I'm dying to see it."
"We'll open it in the back room," Stephanie answered, struggling to sound enthusiastic. She'd known all along that John Reynard was the wrong man for her. Or she'd known that perhaps there was no right man, given the way she failed to connect with anyone on a truly intimate level. But she'd held out hope for something more.
Then fate had overtaken her hopes.
Still, she wasn't going to let on to her assistant that she had doubts about her upcoming wedding. She was too private a person to talk about her secret worries. And she couldn't shake the nagging impression that it might be dangerous to reveal her state of mind to anyone. Besides, even if she weren't marrying John Reynard out of love, maybe it would turn out okay.
That was what she told herself, even when she feared she was heading for disaster. Too bad she was stuck with the bargain she'd made.
"Should I open the box?" Claire called from the next room.
"I'll be right there," she answered, then took a couple of deep breaths as she looked around the shop that had been the major focus of her life for the past two years. It was feminine and nicely decorated, a showplace where women could relax while they browsed the dresses and evening outfits that Stephanie imported from designers on the East Coast and Europe.
She'd always dressed well and loved fashion, but her interest morphed from an avocation into a business when her father had given her the bad news about his gambling debts.
She'd wanted to scream at him, but she hadn't bothered raging about his lack of regard for anyone but himself. The criticism would just roll off his back like rain off a yellow slicker.
Instead, she'd taken her sense of style and the money that her mother had left her and bought a small shop in the French Quarter, a shop that had done well until a downturn in the city's business cycle had put her in jeopardy.
She stepped into the back room and found Claire talking on her cell phone. When she saw Stephanie, she clicked off at once.
"Sorry. I was just checking in with Mom."
"Sure," Stephanie answered, distracted. She knew that Claire's mother was living in a nursing home and that her daughter spoke to her frequently.
Taking a pair of scissors, she began to carefully open the dress box. The top came off, revealing layers of tissue paper. Beneath them was an ivory-colored sleeveless gown decorated with seed pearls and delicate lace. She'd seen it at a wedding outlet in New York and had used her professional capacity to order it at the wholesale price.
"Beautiful," Claire breathed as she touched the delicate silk fabric.
"Why don't you try it on? I can help you with the buttons up the back."
Stephanie slipped the dress onto a hanger, then turned away to put it on the rack in back of her, where it dangled like a headless hanging victim.
She winced, wishing she hadn't thought of that image.
Of course, that wasn't the only thing she wished. What if she'd never met John Reynard? What if her shop hadn't taken that downturn? What if she met a man who could connect with her in ways that she could only imagine?
She made a disgusted sound. As if that was going to happen.
"What?" Claire asked.
"Nothing. I'm not really feeling well. Do you mind if I get out of here for a few hours?"
Claire gave her a sympathetic look. "Oh, no. You've got that reception with John this evening."
Stephanie felt a wave of anxiety sweep over her. She'd put the reception out of her mind, but now she knew what had been making her feel unsettled-even before the dress had arrived. "Lord, I forgot all about that."
"You'd better go home and rest. You don't want to disappoint him."
"Right." Once again, she wished that she'd never met John Reynard. Wished that he hadn't listened to her dad's sob story, then stepped in to pay her debts-and Dad's. But she'd taken his money because her father had begged her to let John Reynard handle their problems. And at the time, it had seemed the only way out. She'd been willing to let her shop go under. She could always find a job with someone else, but that wouldn't work out so well for Dad. He'd lose the house-his last tie to the luxurious past that the family had enjoyed. And she'd known deep down that would kill him.
If she were the cause of that, her guilt would be too great for her to bear. Which was the irony of this situation. She'd never really felt close to her parents, yet she was compelled to make sure her father ended his days in the manner to which he was accustomed. Probably because she'd never felt like a dutiful daughter-and Dad had made sure she understood that.
Claire's voice broke into her troubled thoughts.
"Don't worry about a thing. I'll take care of it."
"Thanks." She thought for a moment. "If Mrs. Arlington calls to ask about her ball gown, tell her it hasn't come in yet."
"Of course. Don't trouble yourself about it," Claire repeated.
Stephanie nodded, wishing she could really relax and stop worrying about her future.
After three days in New Orleans, Craig was getting a feel for the city and the power base that ran it. The Big Easy was so different from any other American urban area that it might as well have been in a foreign country. The atmosphere was hot and sultry. The houses were painted bright colors. The landscape was almost tropical, and the people exuded a laid-back attitude that belied the hard times that Hurricane Katrina had caused.
He'd avoided his contact with the police department because he was in the city under an assumed name-Craig Brady. Unlike Craig Branson, Brady had inherited considerable wealth and lived off his investments. The persona was one he'd established several years ago when he'd been hired to take down a finance guy who was using a Ponzi scheme to line his own pockets. Craig had posed as an investor ripe for the picking and nailed the guy.
The Brady persona made a good cover for investigating John Reynard. But so far Craig had stayed away from the man. He wanted to establish himself as being in the city for profit and fun. To that end he'd gone prowling around, sampling the food, the jazz and the strip clubs along Bourbon Street.
He'd also found a high-stakes poker game at a private gentleman's club, where he could pick up some money and also some information. The minimum bet was fifty dollars, but that had been of little risk to Craig. He might not be good at intimate relationships, but he was excellent at reading people, and he used that skill to win a couple of sizable pots.