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She was the most stunning creature he'd ever seen.
The raven-haired woman entered through a door that should have been locked. It was well after ten. Behind her, the street was muted with fog that curled over the pavement and up the streetlights. Declan McKenna stood frozen at the front desk of Vieux Carré Investigations and let the stapler he'd just picked up tumble from his fingers back to the desktop.
"I need you," she said, her low, throaty voice sizzling down his spine.
"Then have me. I'm yours."
A perfectly arched brow revealed her annoyance with his attempt at humor. "I need your services," she amended. "Your professional services. You are a private investigator?"
"Forgive me. You took me by surprise." He straightened. "Declan McKenna, one of the owners of Vieux Carré Investigations." His cousin and partner, Ian, was out of town, the reason Declan had spent all night wrestling with paperwork. They didn't have any other employees, not while they were working to get the business in the black, so they had to do everything from footwork to accounting.
"I'm Grace Broussard."
Declan moved to his office door and held out an arm to invite her in. "Please."
Closing the outside door, she stepped forward.
What an eyeful she was in a sleek black dress, both sides slitted to reveal glimpses of long, long legs. Her raven hair dusted her shoulders and came to a peak at her waist. There was something familiar about her, but he couldn't quite place where he'd seen her before. Mesmerized by the length of Grace's spine as she moved into the office before him, Declan removed his jacket.
She was making him sweat.
Grace took a seat, and Declan rounded his desk, one of the many antiques adorning the office. Not Declan's taste. Not Ian's, either. They'd bought the business, lock, stock and furniture, from the previous owner. The decor was appropriate for a business situated in the French Quarter, so they hadn't changed anything, not even the dark green paint on the walls.
Declan hung his jacket on the back of his chair and sat. "What can I do for you, Ms. Broussard?"
"Grace, please. I need you to find out who's been following me."
"What makes you think you're being followed?"
Not that he disbelieved her. Most likely more than one man had followed her at some time or other.
"Let's say my senses are sharp, in tune with my surroundings. I've been aware of someone following me several times in the past two weeks."
"Did you see who?"
"No, but I'm not imagining it. I thought perhaps it was a fan. But then there are these." She opened her purse and pulled out several folded sheets of cream-colored paper. "The first came in the mail at work."
Unfolding one of the missives, she placed it on the desk and slid it toward him. He stared at the words printed in caps.
I'VE BEEN WATCHING YOU
She placed the second sheet on top of the first. There was a little hitch in her voice when she said, "The second message was delivered to me at a social gathering. A charity dinner. I found it under my plate."
I SEE EVERYTHING YOU DO
"And now there's this, pushed under my apartment door sometime during the night. Or maybe that's what woke me up so early this morning."
Her hand was shaking now as she smoothed out the final note. Declan stared at the four words printed neatly in the middle of the third missive.
I CAN EXPOSE YOU
"Do you know what the threat means?" he asked.
"It must have something to do with my work."
"I represent a new line of designer clothing called Voodoo."
Declan snapped to and felt a flush creep up his neck as he placed her—that ad in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Her lying across a red satin-covered bed, back arched, arm lazily thrown over her head, the words under the photo: Voodoo…Put A Spell On Him Tonight….
He'd wanted the woman in that ad to put a spell on him!
Clearing his throat, he said, "Sounds like this could be a stalker. Have you been to the police?"
"No police," she said. "Not unless absolutely necessary."
"Tell me why."
Grace took a big breath. "Bad publicity could be devastating to my mother's career. She's an assistant district attorney and slated to fill a judicial vacancy. And then there's my brother, a city council member up for re-election. I wouldn't be able to bear it if I somehow ruined the lives of the people I love."
As a man who believed in family loyalty, Declan was impressed. Grace's emotions were raw, right on the surface. A person didn't have to be an empath to read her. But as a McKenna, he could do so more quickly and more deeply than the average person. All the members of his family had some native ability—his being able to read anyone's emotions.
"So, I gather you'd like us to provide you with a bodyguard."
"No!" Her depthless gray eyes widened. "I can't have someone following me around every moment. I want you to figure out who this pervert is and help me find a way to dissuade him from doing anything I would regret."
"To find him, I would have to dig into your life. You need to realize an investigation sometimes brings to light things people would rather see stay buried."
"I have no skeletons in my closet," she said firmly, but suddenly she couldn't seem to meet his gaze.
"And your family?"
"Of course not!" she snapped.
Making him certain she was hiding something. Well, that made two of them. Not that either his McKenna gift or the McKenna curse had any bearing on the case. He'd abandoned the woman he'd fallen for before anything serious could happen between them. The last time he'd seen Lila Soto, one of the serious artists his sister Aislinn represented in her gallery, her spirit had been crushed, and her dark eyes had been deep pools of pain—pain that he'd caused even though he'd left his home in New Mexico to protect her.
Grace Broussard was exactly the kind of woman he used to go for. Grace was gorgeous and sexy, but she was no Lila. Not soft and shy and funny and generous. Not the type of woman to whom he would ever give his heart.
"So you would be comfortable with whatever background information I learn about you or your family."
"As long as you keep to a confidentiality agreement."
Declan nodded. "Of course. All right, I'll take the case. We charge eight hundred a day plus expenses."
Declan had Grace fill out some paperwork and sign a waiver so that he had permission to dig where he saw fit. When she was done, a rush of something he couldn't quite name shot through him as he held out his hand to shake on the deal.
A feeling of helplessness—as though she were rushing to some inexplicable destiny—came over Grace. A sound like white noise filled her head and she found herself staring into thick-lashed green eyes with deep lids at half-mast. Bedroom eyes.
Forcing herself to concentrate, she stretched out her hand. Declan's long fingers wrapping around hers shot a rush of heat through her and sizzled along her nerves. Shocked, she felt the room narrow as an image quickly flipped through her mind….
Declan tears off his tie…catches her by the hips and runs his lips along her naked spine….
Spine tingling from neck to hips, Grace smothered a gasp and tried to look natural as she freed her hand. It couldn't be happening to her again…not after all these years. Good Lord, what had she just done?
Her imagination was playing tricks on her. She hadn't really seen what she'd thought upon touching him. Not possible, because she didn't have visions anymore.
Not even by accident!
"I'll need you to leave the notes," Declan said. "And I would like to get your fingerprints so I can eliminate them when I run my tests on the paper."
His stare was so intense she could feel it all the way down to her toes. As if he'd read her mind, his full mouth quirked into a grin, stretching the faint scar on his chin.
"Fingerprints…but that would only incriminate someone who'd already had their fingerprints taken. A criminal."
"Chances are, that's exactly who we're dealing with."
"Don't worry, we won't have to mess up your fingers with ink. My cousin is an electronic junkie. Even though we're a small business, he has to have the latest tools, including one for electronic fingerprinting. I'll be just a moment," he said, leaving the room.
Great. Fingerprinting. That meant Declan would touch her again. Ten times. Once for each finger. Ten more chances to flash on some nonexistent future.
But when he came back and set the equipment on the desk before her, he said, "You just need to press each finger to the screen, one at a time. It'll only take a few moments."
Relief washed through her when she realized Declan didn't have to touch her again, after all. As she followed his instructions, Grace knew that she needed to get hold of herself, stop imagining the unthinkable. Get her mind back to the problem at hand.
"I need some basic information," Declan said. "About your place of business and the people you work with."
Though she couldn't imagine the stalker was that close to her, Grace said, "Raphael Duhon is the owner-designer of Voodoo. And Max Babin is the photographer he uses. I really don't work with anyone else on a regular basis."
"You're on good terms with both of them?"
"I am. Raphael actually owns the building where both Voodoo and Gotcha!, the photography studio, are located. It's at Decatur and Iberville."
"All your shoots are inside, then?"
"No, not all. I'm also the spokeswoman for Voodoo, so I do a lot of society and charity events. I'm constantly being photographed at them."
"That complicates things. Some man you met at one of these functions could have targeted you. When's the next event?"
"As a matter of fact, I have one tomorrow night."
"Do you have an escort?"
"You do now. I can scope out the people around you with a fresh eye. If anyone has taken an unnatural interest in you, I'll spot him."
They made plans to talk later—they would pick a place to meet then. Grace left Vieux Carré Investigations and headed for home with a lighter heart than she'd had when she entered.
Even so, as she walked down the street, she couldn't help but look over her shoulder. If some dangerous man lurked behind her, she couldn't spot him. Declan McKenna would have a better eye for these things than she did, the reason she'd hired him.
Even so, she walked faster.
She'd never been afraid before—not like this, not on so many levels.
For once in her life, she had something she could call her own—an actual career that she loved. She'd done a lot of searching, had gotten off to a lot of bad starts, but finally—finally!—she knew what she was meant to do.
Being photographed wasn't important to her, though she did enjoy it. Being able to draw on the contacts she'd made all her life to help break out a talented designer and to raise donations for various charities through her appearances meant a great deal to her. It gave her a purpose in life she'd never before had. She could follow family tradition, but in her own unique way. In the past, she'd endured society functions. She hadn't fit in. Now she saw them as a way to use her celebrity to do good for folks who needed help. It was a win-win situation for everyone involved.
For the first time, she was really happy with her life.
Now someone was trying to ruin that, to take the joy she'd finally discovered from her work. Grace wasn't about to let that happen, no matter what she had to do.
Or see, she thought, remembering the vision she'd had when touching Declan.
No, no. It wouldn't happen again, she assured herself, remembering the traumatic incident the last time she'd used her ability.
She was so focused on her distraught thoughts that she didn't realize she'd automatically taken a shortcut down a narrow side street—one that wasn't well lit. The area seemed deserted…but the hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention.
Was she being followed?
This time when she turned around, she spotted a dark figure slip into a doorway.
Heart hammering, trying not to panic, she sped up.
Footsteps slap-slapped behind her, quickly drawing closer. Nearly choking on her breath, she pushed herself, now running blindly in her panic. The threatening footfalls echoed through her head and she feared her pursuer was nearly upon her….
A door opened and she ran into a tall, broadly built man exiting and lost her balance.
He caught her before she fell. "Easy, chér." His expression concerned, he looked behind her. "Is there a problem?"
Grace looked, too, but whoever had been following her had melted into the night.
"Sorry, I got turned around and didn't know where I was," she lied. "The hour is so late…" Nearly midnight. "The street's empty…I just got scared."
The young man grinned. "Would you like us to walk you home?" He indicated a woman who'd followed him out of the building.
Relief washed through her. "I would be so appreciative. I'm in the Marigny, just the other side of Esplanade."
"No problem. Anything for a lady."
Feeling infinitely better, Grace gave the empty street behind her one last searching look.
So nowwhatwas Grace Broussard up to, going to a private investigator? Did she really think she was going to get out of this?
Of course she did.
Privileged people never thought bad things could happen to them. They assumed that while they wreaked havoc on other people, they could go through life unscathed. That they could do whatever they wanted, whenever they wanted, and that they would never have to pay.
Grace Broussard was about to learn different.
The stakes just went up…
"Minny, what are you doing here?" Grace asked when she arrived early for her shoot the next morning and found her cousin wandering around Gotcha!
The photography studio wasn't open this early. There was no one currently on hand to stop anyone from coming through. The last receptionist had been let go the week before—Max said Eva just wasn't working out, but Grace had overheard an argument between Max and a supplier about cost, making Grace wonder if finances were the real reason.
Minny had made herself at home.
"I was looking for you, of course, Grace. So what do you think?"
Minny was posed in front of the scrim, lit with a pale lavender—the only soft thing about the scene. Minny's hair glowed red. Not auburn, not mahogany, but a stoplight red that made her freckles pop. Her floaty blouse was a pattern of red and gold, and she wore gold capris.
Nothing subtle about Cousin Minny.
Wondering where Max had gotten to—since the lights were on, the photographer was obviously in the middle of setting up for the shoot—Grace echoed, "What do I think? It all depends on what you want to advertise."