New Orleans, Louisiana
Blue streaks and long spikes protruded every direction out of the ponytail elastic on top of Jerilyn Bowman’s head. Black lips and nails added to the dark, don’t-you-dare-mess-with-me look. Jeri had adopted the carefully crafted image on the day she decided to stay in New Orleans.
The persona she projected wasn’t her. Not at all. It was a disguise. In high school, she was a brainiac. Sensible clothes. Responsible habits. Excellent grades. Jeri knew herself well enough to know her true nature was somewhere between good little girl and badass bitch.
Her parents wouldn’t understand her choices, and she wasn’t going to try to explain. Not when the secrets they had kept from her for years were the main reason she wanted to keep them out of her life. So when she dropped out of medical school to bartend, she hadn’t told them about her decision. As far as she knew, they still believed she was studying anatomy and medical ethics at Tulane Medical School.
She slid a glass across the bar toward a regular customer. “Here ya go.”
Among all the tourists who ordered nothing but Hurricanes and Sazeracs, the local guy was a bit of a challenge. He always had a new drink for her to mix. Today’s choice was a concoction he called Royal Blood. She’d mixed his drink, adding a sticky red liquid that resembled strawberry syrup from a glass tube he’d brought with him. The mess smelled horrible and looked practically toxic.
Without looking at her, he grunted, lifting his drink and letting it hover near his lips for a long moment before taking the first sip. When he lowered his glass, a line of gooey red outlined his upper lip.
“Is that the way you like it?” She didn’t expect him to respond. The weirdo rarely spoke more than a few words.
He dropped a ten on the counter. Despite his homeless appearance, he was always a good tipper. Jeri’s shift ended at six in the morning, and the weirdo was always her last customer. The man stopped for a moment to gaze out the front window. No telling at what he was staring. He stood so still Jeri thought he might have died standing up. Then, he jerked, dropped something in the trash bin near the door, and exited the bar, leaving the place empty of customers once again.
The weirdo’s empty glass went into the soapy water behind the bar, discoloring the bubbles with a tinge of pink. She grabbed a damp towel and began wiping down the counter for the last time just as the night bouncer Herb turned over the closed sign in the window.
Until recently the bar had never closed, open 24/7, but ever since a brawl on the sidewalk outside had migrated into the bar at six in the morning and someone had taken a bullet right inside the door, the owner had closed it from six a.m. until ten a.m. every day. Darwin had grumbled that he didn’t want to spend his mornings watching his business and that no one should be up that time of day making trouble. If he didn’t take care of his business, it didn’t get taken care of, so he said. Hell, it wasn’t like Darwin stuck around much after midnight. He usually missed all the late night/early morning excitement that the bouncer handled without the boss ever knowing about it.
Jeri’s bare wrist slid across a few drops of the red slimy substance she’d put into the weirdo’s drink. Her head jerked up, her gaze darting across the empty bar toward the other side of the room. For a split second, she saw a woman lying on the floor. Her glassy eyes stared straight into Jerilyn’s soul. Jeri dropped the wet towel and rubbed her fists over her eyes. When she opened them again, the woman had disappeared.
The bouncer turned toward her. “Huh?”
She pointed to the spot where she’d seen the woman. “Is there someone lying on the floor over there?”
It wouldn’t be the first time someone had passed out and woke up the next morning sprawled out on the floor right where they had fallen. That was another early morning joy that Darwin usually missed out on.
Herb squinted in the direction of the darkened corner of the room. “I don’t see nobody.”
The front door popped open, pushing Herb back a few steps, and a man entered. Herb groaned. Jeri had distracted him, and he hadn’t locked up fast enough.
She nodded toward the sign on the door. “We’re closed until ten.”
When the man’s gaze met hers, Jeri’s breath completely left her. His brilliant blue eyes held her stare. It was too bad he was so hot. He smelled like a cop.
Jeri remembered those gorgeous eyes. She’d seen him once before. He’d come into the bar one night with another cop. The two of them had tried so hard to appear as if they were just two guys getting a drink together and had ordered a beer on tap while they had scanned the crowded bar. They hadn’t found whoever they were looking for and had left their drinks behind practically untouched. She would have been glad to give them a go cup. There was no sense in wasting a perfectly good mug of beer.
She forced a smile and dumped the day-old cherries and orange slices into the trashcan beneath the bar. “What can I get for you, officer?”
Herb made a noise of disgust and locked the door with an angry twist of his wrist. Since he’d done time, first in the Orleans Parish jail and then at Angola, Herb had not been a big fan of law enforcement. He stood near the door with his beefy arms crossed over his broad chest. Herb had pumped so much iron during his incarceration that no one dared mess with him, not even cops.
The cop blinked and then grinned as if he had been caught in a criminal act. Before he spoke, he pulled a stool back from the bar and took his sweet time depositing his butt opposite her. One flick of his wrist gave her a quick peek at his ID. He tucked the badge back into his pocket and shoved a picture across the still damp bar.
“Have you seen her hanging around the Quarter?”
Jeri glanced at the picture and then raised her gaze to meet the cop’s eyes. Believable lies were all about projecting confidence. “Nope.”
So her parents had figured out that she had dropped out of Tulane. It had taken them long enough. She lifted the weirdo’s glass out of the soapy water and began cleaning it, trying to keep doing her job and appearing as casual a possible, while her heart pounded at a furious pace.
The cop sighed and pointed at the photo. “Jerilyn’s parents are worried about her. I would like to tell them she isn’t dead.”
It was a strange time of day for the cop to be following up on a missing person case. Didn’t he have more serious crimes to investigate at six in the morning?
As if on cue, the high-pitched wail of sirens caught her attention. She turned her head toward the street for a second and then returned her attention to the cop. “Sorry, I can’t help you with that.”
He leaned across the bar and whispered. “What do I tell them, Jerilyn?”
Jeri drew her brows together and crinkled her nose as if he had confused her. “You think I’m that girl?” She glanced at the picture again. “Maybe I look a little like her, but that’s not me.” Not anymore. “My name is Olivia.” She had paid a guy a nice fat sum of money to become Olivia.
He pushed his stool away from the bar. When he stood, she calculated he must be at least six feet tall. She dared look straight into his blue, blue eyes. He smiled again, and she almost smiled back.
“Well, Olivia…if you ever want to pass any news along to Jerilyn’s parents, here’s my card. Give me a call anytime.”
He was gone before she could shove the card back at him. She nudged it to the end of the bar with a long, black-painted fingernail and then watched it float into the trash bin.
Give me a call anytime. She snorted with contempt.
If he weren’t a cop…if he wasn’t looking for her, she might think the man had just hit on her. But he was a detective, and cops were pros at deception. He could easily fake interest to fool her into talking to him. She knew how they were because her father was a high-ranking officer with the Nashville police. No doubt, that was why the local PD was giving her particular missing person case personalized attention.
She glanced at the name on the card as it lay face up on top of the fruit. Det. Nicholas Moreau. Just her luck the hottest guy she’d ever met was a cop. She snatched the card from the trash and slipped it into the pocket of her jeans…just in case.