Danielle Dupree, daughter of a prominent judge, was the closest thing to a princess the sleepy Louisiana town of Blue Bayou ever had. Her passionate teenage love affair with Jack Callahan was cut short for reasons that were never clear to Dani -- but were all too obvious to Jack, the sexy bad-boy son of Judge Dupree's housekeeper.
Thirteen years later Dani, a widow with a son, comes home to start a new life and is surprised that Jack, too, has moved back to the Bayou. A former DEA agent who is now a bestselling author, Jack has bought Dani's childhood home, Beau Soleil. But even as their passion reignites, Dani and Jack know that secrets hang in the air...and that the past may ruin their second chance at a once-in-a-lifetime love.
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The moon hung full and low and bloodred over the bayou as Jack Callahan sat out on the gallerie of the crumbling plantation house, working on a bottle of whiskey that wasn't working on him. It had been a sweltering day, and even at midnight the air, which smelled of damp brick and night-blooming jasmine, dripped with moisture.
The old swing squeaked as he slowly swayed; an alligator glided silently across water the color of burgundy wine, its eyes gleaming in the dark like yellow headlights.
A mist that wasn't quite rain began to fall as he watched the storm gather out over the Gulf and thought back to the night when Beau Soleil had resembled a huge white wedding cake. A night when music floated on the sultry summer air, fairy lights strung through the limbs of the chinaberry trees twinkled like fireflies, and white candles anchored in fake water lilies glowed invitingly on the smooth turquoise surface of the pool water.
White jacketed waiters had circulated with trays of mint juleps and flutes of French champagne while belles in tulle and taffeta danced magnolia-scented nights away. The girls had been mouthwateringly pretty in airy flowered dresses that showed off their tanned shoulders and long slender legs. And Danielle Dupree had outshone them all.
Danielle. He lifted the bottle to his lips; flames slid down his throat. You'd think, after all these years, he'd be immune to the closest thing Blue Bayou had ever had to a princess. But the memory of that night created a rush of molten heat hotter than any the Jack Daniel's could stoke. He'd known, of course, that he had no business wanting her.
"Never have been any good at taking your own counsel, you," he muttered, slipping back into the Cajun patois he'd spoken growing up among his mother's people.
Celibacy was not an easy virtue at any age. For a testosterone-driven eighteen-year-old kid coming off nine long months banished to a last-chance, hard-time military-styled lockup for delinquents, it was damn near impossible. Especially when the girl in question had recklessly, for that brief, shining time, wanted him, too.
Those crazy days and hot nights were, as his daddy used to say, yesterday's ball score. He might not have ended up on Angola's death row, like Judge Dupree had warned, but he'd definitely gone to hell like so many in Blue Bayou had predicted.
"Gone to hell and lived to remember it."
He was no longer viewed as the devil of Blue Bayou. Even The Cajun Clarion had picked up a quote from The New York Times Book Review declaring him a new generation's Joseph Wambaugh. Thanks to all those folks in Hollywood, who threw money around like confetti, he now owned the crown jewel of Louisianan antebellum homes. Not that it was much of a jewel at the moment, but he, more than most, knew outward appearances could be deceiving.
During his years as an undercover drug agent, he'd become a chameleon, able to move among the movers and shakers at a Beverly Hills dinner party one night, while the next night would find him working the street scene in Tijuana, then with only a change of clothes and syntax, he'd be hanging out at the beach, listening to surfer songs and making deals and subsequent busts beneath the Huntington Beach pier.
Outwardly his appearance hadn't changed all that much since his undercover days. He still tied his thick black hair in the same ponytail at the nape of his neck and the gold earring served as a daily reminder that trying to outrun your past was an exercise in futility. But even these leftovers from his former life didn't tell the entire story.
A casual observer would never suspect that his mind was a seething cauldron of drug dealers, strung-out hookers chasing their next high, crooked cops, and hard-eyed kids who lost their innocence before their baby teeth.
Scenes flashed through his mind like movie trailers set to fast forward: the wasted body of a Guadalajara whore, her nose still wet from sniffing cocaine; a nine-month old baby killed in his crib by a drive-by shooting in El Paso, a fourteen-year-old girl in Las Vegas traded by her mother to a biker gang for a weekend's worth of methamphetamine and black tar heroin.
And if those technicolor memories didn't cause mental black clouds to gather overhead, there was always Jack's personal golden oldie: blood blossoming like a garden of scarlet poppies across the front of a lace-trimmed, white silk nightgown.
Even now, guilt slashed at him like a razor. Don't get personally involved. That had been rule one of the job. A rule he'd broken once in his life, with fatal consequences.
The fact that he'd nearly died as well did nothing to soothe his conscience or wash the blood from his hands.
"You didn't have any choice," Jack tried telling himself what the investigators who'd been waiting for him when he'd come out of surgery the next day had told him. He hadn't been in any mood to listen. Not then. Not now. The fact was, he'd screwed up. Big time.
During the years away from Louisiana, Jack had developed the ability to live in the moment, which was handy when your life could come to a sudden, violent end at any time. The covert activities he'd carried out all over the world had been as dangerous as they were secretive, and when they were completed, he shed the more unsavory aspects of his career along with whatever identity he'd taken on, leaving them behind in his dark and murky past.
And then, as always, he moved on.
Some of those who'd worked with him had called him crazy. Others proclaimed him a reckless cowboy. Still others accused him of having a death wish and refused to work with him again.
Jack hadn't much cared what anyone thought. Until he'd held up his former partner's trembling, black-clad widow while she stoically accepted the American flag that had been draped over her husband's mahogany casket.
Back from the dead, he'd turned in his snazzy government badge and his Glock semiautomatic, then walked away from a guaranteed salary, health benefits, and a pension he hadn't believed he'd live long enough to collect, retreating to the isolation of the moss-draped, foggy Louisiana bayou, where he didn't have to worry about being blown away if his Louisiana Cajun accent suddenly came out, blowing his cover story, whatever the hell it was that day.
It was only then that Jack realized he'd been playing at roles for so many years, he'd not only lost his soul, but any sense of who he was.
The first three months, spent in alcohol-sodden oblivion, passed by in a blur. Jack's only vivid memory of those early days after his homecoming was the night he'd hit rock bottom and ended up floating aimlessly through the swamp in his pirogue, stewed to the gills, the barrel of a .38 pressed against the roof of his mouth.
It would have been so damn easy to pull the trigger. Too easy, he'd decided, hurling the revolver into the water. The idealistic altar boy who'd confessed his childish digressions every Saturday afternoon at Blue Bayou's Church of the Holy Assumption Jack had been amazed to discover still lurking somewhere deep inside him required penance for adult sins.
Shortly after choosing life over suicide, he'd awakened from a three-day binge, pulled an old legal pad from its long-ago hiding place beneath a floorboard, and begun to write. A week later he'd discovered that while he couldn't exorcise all his old ghosts, he could hold them somewhat at bay by putting them down on paper.
Still working on instinct, when he ran out of clean pages, he went into town, bought an old Smith Corona manual typewriter at a secondhand store -- electricity tended to go out a lot in the swamp -- and reams of paper. After returning to the camp, he settled down to work, and with words flooding out from too-long-ignored emotional wounds, he wrote like a man possessed.
Things probably would have stopped there if an old friend, who, concerned about his welfare, hadn't ventured out into the swamp to check on him. When he found him sleeping like the dead he'd once longed to be and read the pages piled up on every flat surface, he'd convinced Jack to send them to a New York agent he knew.
Three months later Jack had received the life-altering call offering to buy his first -- and decidedly uneven -- novel about an alcoholic, burned-out, suicidal DEA agent. Eighteen months after that he'd hit the publishing jackpot when The Death Dealer soared to the top of every best-seller list in the country.
Now wealthier than he'd ever dreamed, he spent his days working up a sweat wielding crowbars, claw hammers, and axes, clearing away the kudzu that was threatening to consume the house, tearing apart crumbling foundations, ripping off rotted shingles.
When it grew too dark to work, he passed sleepless nights pounding computer keys, reliving those dark and violent memories that had amazingly also found a huge international audience.
He should have been in tall cotton, but since moving into Beau Soleil's garconnière, originally constructed as quarters for the young men of the plantation house, Jack had been haunted by memories which lingered like bits of Spanish moss clinging to a long-dead cypress.
He cursed viciously, then heard an answering whine. Glancing down, he viewed a mutt standing beneath one of the ancient oaks. She was a mess, her frame, long legs, and huge feet and head suggesting that she'd be about the size of a small horse if she hadn't been starved down to skin and bones. Ribs protruded from her sunken sides, her filthy fur was the color of dirty straw, and a nasty wound oozed across her muzzle.
"You and me, we got something in common, chien femelle. Two messed-up bayou strays."
She whined again but, seemingly encouraged by him talking to her, started slinking up the steps, her tail between her legs, limpid chocolate brown eyes hopeful.
"Christ, you're a sorry sight. Flea-bitten, too, I'll bet."
She dropped down on her haunches at his feet but was still able to look him in the eye.
"I suppose you want a handout."
She whined. Thumped her tail.
"Somethin' to eat?"
He'd obviously said the secret word. The tail began wagging to beat the band, revealing a remarkably optimistic nature for an animal who'd obviously had a helluva tough time.
"You can crash for the night. But I'm not looking for any long-term relationship here."
She barked. Once, twice, a third time. The expressive tail went into warp wag.
Shaking his head, Jack pushed himself to his feet and crunched across the oyster-shell drive to the garconnière, the dog so close on his heels she was nudging the back of his legs.
The contents of his refrigerator were not encouraging. "We've got two six-packs, a half-empty carton of milk I'm not gonna vouch for, and a brick of something green I think used to be cheese."
It was always this way when he was deep in a book. Worse when he was fighting with uncooperative characters as he'd been the past days. He'd forego sleep. Forget to eat, shower, shave. Hell, the entire planet could blow itself to smithereens, but if he was writing, he probably wouldn't notice until he lost power to his laptop.
Despite his warning, the dog's sharp bark suggested she was willing to take her chances.
"Wait a minute." He unearthed a dish from behind the beer, sniffed it, and tried to remember how many days it had been sitting in there.
"You like crawfish jambalaya?"
She barked again. Pranced, her nails clicking on the heart-of-cypress floor.
"Guess that's a yes."
After she'd wolfed the seasoned rice and crawfish down, Jack retrieved a bottle of hydrogen peroxide from the bathroom and cleaned the dog's wound. It had to have stung like the devil, but she sat perfectly still, staring at him with those big brown trusting eyes.
"Don't get used to it. Because tomorrow you and I are takin' a visit to the animal shelter."
The dog taken care of, he took the six-pack over to the old wooden kitchen table that had been handcrafted with trees milled from Beau Soleil's back woods. Those earlier thoughts of Danielle's birthday ball had stirred his balky muse, throwing up a series of what-ifs that seemed promising.
What if, he asked himself as he popped the top on one of the bottles, the aging drug kingpin had a daughter? A young woman as distant and unreachable as a star. A woman the alcoholic DEA agent -- who was trying to bring her father down -- was inexorably drawn to, even knowing it was suicide?
By the time a soft lavender predawn light was shimmering on the horizon, he'd worked his way through the six-pack, and the ceramic crawfish ashtray was piled high with cigarette butts, but the computer screen was filled with new scenes. Jack saved them onto his hard drive, pushed back from the table, staggered into the adjoining room, and crashed on the unmade bed.
As the dog sprawled onto the floor at the foot of the bed with a long satisfied sigh, Jack fell like a stone into sleep.
Danielle Dupree had always believed in fairy tales. And why not? After all, she'd grown up a princess in a storybook white-pillared plantation home, and even after bayou bad boy Jack Callahan broke her heart, she'd continued to believe in happily-ever-afters.
The only problem with fairy tales, she thought now as she lugged a heavy box of books out to her Volvo station wagon, was they didn't warn impressionable little girls that a few years down that Yellow Brick Road Prince Charming might decide to move into a new castle with a Vassar-educated princess who could better assist his career climb to king, subsequently die in a freak accident, and it'd be back to the ashes for Cinderella.
It had been a month since Lowell's death, yet it still was so strange to think of herself as a widow when she'd expected to be a divorcée.
Dani wasn't certain anyone deserved to have a piano drop on his head. Still, there was some irony in the fact that it happened to be Lowell's fiancÉe's gleaming white Steinway that had snapped its cable while the deliverymen were attempting to bring it in through the balcony French doors of their fifth-floor apartment.
Dani was, of course, sorry the man she'd married right out of college was dead. After all, he was her son's father. But still, she hadn't experienced any sense of grave personal loss. It certainly hadn't been as devastating as that fateful day nineteen months ago when a reporter from The Washington Post had called her and told her to turn on the six o'clock news.
Watching Congressman Lowell Dupree's press conference -- held in the Watergate, where apparently he'd leased a cozy little love nest with his brunette barracuda chief of staff -- Dani had been stunned to hear her husband tell the world that he was divorcing his wife.
Since he was the one who'd been so hot to set up housekeeping with another woman, Dani hadn't understood why he'd dragged their divorce out for eighteen long, contentious months during which time he'd raided their joint bank accounts, held back child support for the flimsiest of grounds that never held up in court, and refused to grant her lawyer access to financial records.
It was only after his death that Dani discovered her husband's high-flying venture into tech and Internet stocks had gone south, leaving him to die deeply in debt.
"Mom, I can't find my Hot Wheels."
"I packed them with your Hogwarts figures in the box with the orange stickers."
Her eight-old-son, Matt, was a die-hard Baltimore Orioles fan, which was why she'd assigned him orange in her moving-box color-coding system. She'd chosen red for herself, since it was supposed to be a power color, and she figured right now she needed all the help she could get.
"I forgot. Thanks, Mom."
"You're very welcome, darling." She drew a line through the box of books on her packing list.
Pleased to have averted a potential crisis, Dani returned to the house to strip the sheets off the king-size bed, which surprisingly hadn't proven at all lonely during the nineteen months she'd been sleeping by herself.
Three hours later the house was emptied, and her son was buckled into the backseat of the wagon with its READ vanity license plate.
"It feels funny not to be going to school," Matt said.
"I know, but you'll be in your new school in just a few days." Dani turned a corner and left the red brick Federal house -- along with her former life -- behind in the Volvo's rearview mirror. "Today we're going home."
Copyright © 2002 by The Ross Family Trust created 10/23/97