The school has unleashed another passion, as well. When bodies start turning up, the local sheriff and the townspeople must fend for themselves. Taking the lead, Roche and Bleu race to unravel the mystery. But when it's revealed that all the victims are former patients of Roche, speculation arises that the people of Toussaint may not be looking for a stranger, but one of their own.
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About the Author
Stella lives in Washington state.
Read an Excerpt
Toussaint, Louisiana Early evening
He was a worthy man, a brilliant, necessary man. His decisions benefited everyone in Toussaint. They would never recognize the good he did. Just as well. Their ignorance kept him free. Foolish interference with his plans would not be tolerated. Could not be tolerated.
Justice, that was his rightful name.
The final caress of warmth had seeped from the old, stone church. This wasn't the place he would have chosen to deal with a threat to his plans, but he had no choice. Where else could he be certain of finding Jim Zachary alone tonight?
Jim must be stopped before he could do what he planned to do in an hour or so. He had forced Justice's hand.
St. Cecil's and the holier-than-thou hypocrites who minced through its doors represented the enemy. The people who loved to simper and whisper in the pews, to frown while they condemned the innocent for their supposed sins, and to utter pious words of forgiveness they didn't mean, enraged him.
Judgment. He had been judged and punished. Now it was his turn to judge. And punishand to take his reparation.
Fresh flowers spread their fickle scents, but the stench of old, rotted stems in unwashed vases ensured that no one forgot that this was a place where memories of the dead lingered. They had come here as innocent children with sweet flowers in their hands, then as adults with roses in their hair and in their buttonholes and, when it was their turn, they came with lilies on their coffins.
From behind the bronze screen that hid tables loaded with hymnals, bulletins, donation envelopes and baskets where the hopeful left prayers written on scraps of paper, he watched the side door that Jim Zachary used when he arrived for solitary evening prayer.
The knife felt slippery. Sweat wouldn't be allowed to make the death noisy or less swift.
Zachary was late.
Around the walls of St. Cecil's, sconces flickered on. Rather than make one lone visitor more conspicuous, the small lights reduced the interior to a wash of shadows in shades of brown.
An outer door creaked, groaned on its great hinges, and metal-capped heels clattered on stone flags.
The inner door squealed open Voices marred the silence.
Justice half knelt to watch. His heart squeezed and thudded when scrawny little Jim Zachary entered the nave with Father Cyrus Payne behind him. The tall, well-built priest accentuated the other man's almost childlike stature.
Weak and helpless in the strong hands of Justice.
But not with the priest around.
Father Cyrus's laugh echoed between the walls and the pillars. He picked up a clipboard from a table near the door and said, "See you at the meeting later?"
"I'll be there," Zachary said.
Father Cyrus gave Zachary a wave and left.
Justice's breathing returned to normal and the iciness in his legs thawed. You will not be at that meeting, Jim Zachary. I know what you plan to say there. I will not let you do that. Come to me. You have brought this on yourself with your bleeding-heart charity obsession. Walk this way. You know where you sitjust a few feet from where I stand. You always sit there. Did you ever think that a habit could be dangerous? It is a great help when certain plans must be made.
From a distance, Zachary's face couldn't be seen. He held his head slightly turned and bowedalwaysin a sign of humility. Or perhaps of subservience and insecurity.
Closer and closer Jim Zachary drew, his steps small, his gray hair falling over his tilted brow in a thick, straight wad.
Into the pew, put down the kneeler, bury your head in your hands, abject in the knowledge that you are not worthy.
Justice slowly produced the Italian switchblade he treasured, fired its silken smooth action open with the slightest audible snick and wiped its grip. He held ten inches of unforgiving stainless-steel blade. The tight gloves he had pulled on had thin leather stitched to the palms and fingertips; they would serve him well since the knife handle had dried. His own hand was strong, and now it was cool.
On the balls of his feet, and rapidly, he left the cover of the screen, crossed the aisle to stand near a pillar and allowed a few seconds to pass before he got behind Zachary and slammed his left hand over the small man's face.
At first Zachary didn't move. He allowed himself to be pulled to his feet and yanked backward over the seat. With Zachary's head crammed against his chest, Justice raised the knife.
Zachary flung out his arms and tried to twist free. He braced his feet on the back of the pew in front of him and pushed hard, but his opponent was like an iron jaw closed on a feeble catch. Gurgles burbled from Zachary's throat, and then a quavering scream.
He bowed his body into an arch and jerked from side to side repeatedly.
"You wouldn't listen," Justice said against the other's ear. "Even when you knew your plans were wrong, you would not back down. This will make Toussaint and this parish stronger. It is for them." And the good of Justice.
With one deft thrust, he sunk his long blade into the man's neck and all the way through. Shoved him, headfirst, to the seat and skewered him against the wood. He jerked, thrashed. So much blood, pumping out a man's life. Why couldn't Zachary have stayed away from church politics? Killing him now, before Justice was completely ready, was a difficult inconvenience.
Gradually, the violent movements weakened, then faded. A rolled pamphlet was ready in Justice's other pocket. He removed this and left it, just as he had planned.
In minutes, the great gush of blood from the artery in Zachary's neck ebbed to a trickle and stopped. Dead men didn't bleed.
Later the same evening
"Why are you here?" Bleu Laveau said. She knew Roche Savage had come to the parish hall meeting, because she was the one giving the presentation. He couldn't have any interest in plans to build a new school.
He had come for her.
A tall, rangy man, with curly, almost black hair and the bluest eyes she had ever seen, he was in the business of fixing minds. And from his reputation, he was very successful. She wondered if he could somehow have found out her secret and if she was a challenge to him now.
Only one person in Toussaint was aware of the life she had been trying to outrun, and her cousin, Madge Pollard, wasn't the gossiping type. That didn't mean Roche couldn't track her down some other way.
Why didn't he say something? Dressed in jeans and an open-necked shirt with its sleeves rolled back over his forearms, he looked casual but Bleu felt his tension. She edged away from him.
His relaxed stance didn't match the way he stared at her. As if he was planning his next move.
Roche weighed what he should do. Bleu's behavior had caught him off guard. The woman trying to put distance between them, as if he might pounce on her, wasn't the one he'd first met a couple of weeks ago over a cup of coffee. Something had happened to make her afraid of him, and he wished he didn't feel so certain about what that was.
Bleu was still moving. With her hair streaming in the wind, she took sideways steps up the slope from the parish hall to the spot where she had parked her Honda in the lane above.
Roche didn't follow her. "Just talk to me," he said. "That's all I want. Tell me what's wrong and I'll try to make it right."
She had been the last to leave a packed meeting about plans to build a new school where the old one had burned down years ago on existing church property. Everyone else had already driven off.
And the instant she saw him, she had just about run away. He didn't get it.
Bleu's head pounded. "Please excuse me, " she said. "I have to get home. Tomorrow's a full day."
What she wouldn't ask him was if he knew about her marriage, about the horrible, personal things she'd been forced to discuss with strangers. If he did know, he could also be aware of the way her former husband had turned sex into something horrifying and that she had been left with a fear of intimacy.
Yesterday, the potential truth about Roche's interest in her suddenly became clear. She had been looking forward to having dinner with him when she figured it out: She wasn't his type. He had another reason for wanting to spend time with herto see if she would make an interesting case study, maybe?
Roche felt furious that he'd missed some signal she must have given him. He picked up some of the documents and files she'd dropped when she saw him waiting for her. "You'll need these," he said.
Last night, she stood him up for dinner, but he had put it down to her preoccupation with getting ready for tonight's meeting. Obviously he had been wrong; she'd ducked out of the date to avoid him.
Damn. He was a healer, a seasoned psychiatrist who had only ever wanted to help people, not a man who terrified women in the dark.
When he looked up again, she stood like a stone, utterly still. He saw her honey-blond hair glint in the moonlight, saw the glitter in her eyes. In the daylight, they were bright greenalways questioning, always vulnerable.
She took the paperwork from him. "Thank you." Her soft words were difficult to hear in the wind.
Bleu Laveau, with her unassuming air and the way she listened closely when he talked, and her passion for the job she'd come to Toussaint to do, had captured him. His fascination with her, the urge to protectand possess almost disoriented Roche.
Disorientation was dangerous. He had to be in control of himself at all times.
She must not get any idea of his single-minded focus on hernot unless he could be sure she wanted it.
"I heard your presentation," he told her. And afterward, I stood in the shadow of a wall out here, waiting for you. You and I were meant to be together, Bleu. If someone's told you I like adventure with my sexthe wilder, the betterthey're more or less right, damn them, but I can be whatever you want me to be. I'm the one in control, not my sex drive. You'll never be afraid with me.
She looked from him to her car, probably figuring out how fast she could get away from him and what the chances were that he wouldn't catch up.
About zero, lady.
Bleu felt foolish. She took another small step. He must be adding up symptoms to analyze later. He would be thinking she seemed nervous, and she was.
The only way out of this was to change the subject and calm down. "It will be a fight to rebuild a school here," she said. "So many people are against it." Holding her ground wasn't easy.
"If anyone can do it, you can," he said. Bleu had come to Toussaint to do a study on the feasibility of building a new school on St. Cecil's property. The church, the parish hall and the portion where the school had originally stood came close to filling the available space, and it had been made clear that buying additional land wasn't financially feasible.
The rectory had been built next to St. Cecil's but was separated from it by small Bonanza Alley. That was the full extent of their holdings.
"A lot of people are angry," she continued, her voice tight. "The money hasn't even been raised yet, but they're talking about using it for a multipurpose center instead."
Now she was babbling. One more symptom for his list.
"Yeah," he said. "Some of them. Not all."
Roche finished gathering her papers from the ground and walked toward her. The pale moon did nothing more than suggest a light all but snuffed out, and his eyes looked black, fathomless.
"Some of them made it clear they wish I'd go away," Bleu said.
Roche would have expected her to be tougher. He knew she had been through the same type of process a number of times before. "They'll come around," he said. "There are a lot more children in need of a good education than there are folks who play bingo. They've got the parish hall for that. Anyway, who could resist you for long?"
That had been the wrong thing to say. She turned away at once. Her breath came in loud, rough gasps.
"Bleu! Damn it, why are you afraid of me?"
She had made a pact with herself that no one would frighten her again. Now the pact was broken.
"I'm not afraid of you," she lied. "I've got to go."
"Fine. Here, take these and I'll wish you goodnight."
"You don't understand," she told him.
"No, I don't. What is it about me that's suddenly disgusting to you? We've had coffee together, and"
"All Tarted Up was packed that morning," she shot back. "The only empty seat in the whole café was at my table. You asked if you could sit there."
He held out the folders. "We enjoyed talking. Can you say that's a lie?"
"It'snot a lie." She inched forward to take her files, then held the whole pile of documents against her chest. "Thank you for picking all these up. I'm I got rattled in there tonight. That's all."
Her excuse didn't cut it with Roche. "That afternoon when I ran in to you by the bayou, you seemed glad to walk with me. We talked about a lot of things. You're great to talk to." But you're damaged, even if you do try to put up a good front.