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"Law, much like life, was ever a study of trials. . . ."
The words from her textbook hovered in Marguerite D'Aubert Goudeau's mind and conjured up the familiar phrase of her friend and study partner Nick Gautier: "Yeah, right. Life is a soul-sucking test that you either survive or you fail. Personally, I think failure blows, so I intend to survive and laugh my ass off at all the losers."
A sad smile curved her lips as bittersweet pain lacerated her heart. She remembered Nick and his caustic take on life, love, death, and everything in between. That man had been able to turn a phrase like nobody's business.
God, how she missed him. He'd been the closest thing to a brother she'd ever known, and there wasn't a day she didn't feel his absence to the deepest part of her soul.
She still couldn't believe that he was gone. That on this very evening, six months ago, his mother, Cherise Gautier, had been found murdered in their Bourbon Street home while Nick had mysteriously vanished without a trace. The New Orleans authorities were convinced that Nick was responsible for his mother's death.
Marguerite knew better.
No one on earth loved their mother more than Nick had loved his. If Cherise Gautier was dead, then so was Nick. No one would have been able to hurt her without facing his wrath. No one.
Marguerite was certain he'd gone after whoever had killed his mother and ended up dead himself. Most likely, he was lying in the bottom of a bayou somewhere. That was why no one had seen him since. And that knowledge tore her apart. Nick had been a good, caring man. A trusted confidant and generally an all-around fun guy.
In her formal, stodgy world of having to make sure she never said or did the wrong thing, he'd been a breath of fresh air and a wonderful dose of reality. It was why she wanted her friend back so desperately.
As Nick would say, her life basically sucked. Her friends were shallow, her father neurotic, and every time she thought she liked a guy, all her father could do was run a thorough background check on the man and his entire family and then tell her why he was socially unacceptable. Or, worse, beneath them.
She really hated that phrase.
"You have a destiny, Marguerite."
Yeah, she was destined to either end up in the mental ward or alone for the rest of her life so that she could in no way ever embarrass her father or her family.
She sighed as she stared at her law book on the library table and felt the familiar tears prick at the backs of her eyes. Nick had never liked studying in the library. When he'd been in their group, they had all piled into his house four days a week to study together.
Now those days were gone and all she was left with was vapid, insecure blowhards who could only feel better about themselves by belittling everyone else.
"Are you all right, Margeaux?"
Marguerite cleared her throat at Elise Lenora Berwick's question. Elise was a tall, perfectly sculpted blonde. And Marguerite meant "sculpted." At twenty-four, Elise had already had six different plastic surgeries to correct her body's slight imperfections. In high school Elise had been the premier debutante of New Orleans, and now she was the reigning beauty at Tulane University.
The two of them had been friends since grade school. In fact, it had been Elise who had put together the study group three years ago when they'd all been undergraduates. Elise had never been one to really apply herself to schoolwork, and so she'd conceived this as a way to use them to help her pass her classes. Not that Marguerite minded. She actually admired Elise's ingenuity and liked watching the master manipulator get the others to do her bidding.
Only Marguerite and Nick had ever seen through Elise. Like Marguerite, Nick had been immune to the beautiful blonde's machinations. But that was okay. If not for Elise, Marguerite wouldn't have been able to get so close to Nick, and in her mind that would have been a true tragedy.
Now she, Elise, Todd Middleton Chatelaine, Blaine Hunter Landry, and Whitney Logan Trahan were all that was left of the group. And that hurt most of all.
Why aren't you here, Nick? I could really use your sense of humor right now.
Marguerite toyed with the edge of the book as an image of his face hovered in her mind. "I was just thinking of Nick. He always loved this law stuff."
"Didn't he, though?" Todd said as he looked up from his book. His black hair was cut short and worn in a perfect style around his handsome face. He had on an expensive red Tommy Hilfiger sweater and a pair of khaki pants. "Had he not been a criminal of questionable and shady parentage, he might have given your father a run for his office one day, Margeaux."
Marguerite tried not to let them see her grind her teeth as they continued to use a nickname she absolutely loathed. They thought it somehow made them closer to her since they used it while others didn't. But in truth, she much preferred the plain and simple "Maggie" that Nick alone had used. Of course that was too crass a nickname for such a refined family as hers. Her father would have an apoplexy if he'd ever heard Nick use it.
But she preferred it. It certainly matched her looks and personality a lot more than "Marguerite" or "Margeaux" ever would.
Now no one would ever call her Maggie again. . . .
The grief in her heart was overwhelming. How could anything hurt so much?
"I still can't believe he's not here anymore," Marguerite whispered, blinking back her tears. Part of her still expected to see him swagger through the doorway with that devilish grin on his face and a bag of beignets in his hand.
But he wouldn't. Ever.
"Good riddance to bad rubbish," Blaine said bitterly as he leaned back in his chair. At six feet even and extremely well-built, with jet-black hair, Blaine thought himself God's gift to all womankind. His family was rich and well connected, and they had given him an extremely overbloated sense of self-importance.
He'd hated Nick because Nick had never allowed Blaine to get away with his snobbery and had called him on the carpet for it on more than one occasion.
Marguerite pinned an angry glare on Blaine. "You're just ticked that he always outscored you on tests."
Blaine curled his lip. "He cheated."
Right. They all knew better. Nick had been exceptionally brilliant. Earthy and at times downright crude, he'd befriended Marguerite and helped her with schoolwork even outside the confines of this group. If not for him, she would have failed her ancient Greek civ class with Dr. Julian Alexander, who had been her undergraduate advisor.
Todd closed his book, then pushed it aside. "You know, I think we should do something to say good-bye officially to the old man. After all, he was part of this group."
Blaine scoffed. "What do you suggest? Burn incense to banish his stench?"
Whitney lightly slapped at Blaine's leg. "Do stop it, Blaine. You're upsetting poor Margeaux. She actually considered Nick a friend."
"I can't imagine why."
Marguerite stiffened as she narrowed her gaze on him. "Because he was nice and caring." Unlike them. Nick wasn't pretentious or cold. He'd been real and he cared for people regardless of who they were related to or how much money they had.
Nick had been human.
"I know what we should do," Elise said, shutting her book as well. "Why don't we visit that place that Nick was always talking about? The one where his mother worked."
"Sanctuary?" Blaine looked completely disgusted. Marguerite hadn't even known a man could perfect such a lip curl. Elvis would be envious indeed. "I've heard it's down on the other side of the French Quarter. How positively gauche."
"I like the idea," Todd said as he tucked his book into his designer backpack. "I'm always up for a good slumming."
Blaine gave him a droll stare. "I've heard that about you, Todd. It's the curse of the nouveau riche."
Todd returned Blaine's stare tit for tat. "Fine then, stay here and keep our seats warm while your ass expands to the size of your ego." He stood up and captured Marguerite's attention. "I think we should bid our not quite esteemed member farewell, and what better way than to go and drink cheap alcohol in his favorite place?"
Blaine rolled his eyes. "You'll most likely contract hepatitis there."
"No, we won't," Whitney said. She looked up at Todd with fear in her bright blue eyes. "Will we?"
"No," Marguerite said firmly as she packed up her books. "Blaine's simply a coward."
He arched a brow at her. "Hardly. Being a thoroughbred on both sides, I have no inclination to waste time with riffraff."
Marguerite lifted her chin at his low blow. Every one of them knew that her mother was a Cajun from Slidell who had nowhere near the social status of her father. Even though she had gone to college on a full scholarship and had been Miss Louisiana, their marriage had been scandalous.
In the end, that disaster was what had led to her death.
It was something only a true dog would hurl in Marguerite's face.
"Thoroughbred asshole, you mean," she said between clenched teeth as she rose to her feet. She slammed her book into her Prada backpack. "Nick was right, you are nothing but a prickly wuss who needs to have his butt kicked."
The women around her gaped at her language while Todd laughed.
Blaine turned an interesting shade of red.
"I have to say that I certainly love a little Cajun spice," Todd said as he joined her side. "Come along, Margeaux, and I'll be more than happy to keep you safe." He looked at the other two women. "Care to join us?"
Whitney looked like a child who was about to get away with staying up past her bedtime. "My parents would die if they knew I went into a dive. Count me in."
Elise nodded, too.
They looked at Blaine, who made a disgusted noise. "When all of you contract dysentery remember who was the voice of reason."
Marguerite pulled her backpack on. "Dr. Blaine, the resident expert on Montezuma's revenge. We have it."
By the look on his face, she could tell he was dying to let fly a vicious retort, but good manners and common sense kept him from speaking. It wasn't wise to twice insult a U.S. senator's daughter when one had ambitions of gaining an internship with said senator in the fall.
And that was most likely what motivated Blaine to join them as they headed for Todd's SUV.
"Oh my goodness!" Whitney exclaimed the instant they entered the famed Sanctuary biker bar.
Marguerite's own eyes widened as she looked around the dark, grungy place that did appear to need a good and thorough cleaning. People were dressed in anything from biker leathers to T-shirts and jeans. The tables and chairs were a hodgepodge of rough design that didn't even match. The stage area was liberally painted black with odd splashes of gray, red, and white, and the billiard tables looked as if they'd survived many a bar fight in their day.
There was even straw spread out across the floor that reminded her of a barn.
The bar area to her right was occupied by rough-looking men drinking beers and yelling at one another. She could see a wooden stairway before them that led to an upstairs area, but she had no idea what was up there. Trouble came to her mind. A person could probably find a lot of trouble up there.
This place was definitely rustic.
But what held her attention most was the high concentration of handsome men working in the bar. They were everywhere. The bartenders, the waiters, the bouncers . . . She'd never seen anything like this. It was a testosterone smorgasbord.
Elise leaned over to whisper in her ear, "I think I might have just died and been sent to heaven. Have you ever seen so many gorgeous men in your life?"
It was all Marguerite could do to shake her head. It really was unbelievable. She was stunned that the news media hadn't caught wind of this and sent in a team to investigate what was in the water to make so many hot men in one place.
Even Whitney was gaping and ogling.
"What kind of music is that?" Blaine said, twisting his lips into a sneer as a new song started over the stereo that was piped through the length and breadth of the bar.
"I think it's called metal!" Todd shouted over the loud guitar solo.
"I call it painful myself," Whitney said. "Did Nick really hang out here?"
Marguerite nodded. Nick had loved this place. He'd spent hours telling her about it and the odd people who called this place home. "He said they had the best andouille sausage in the world."
Copyright © 2005 by Sherrilyn Kenyon