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An Excerpt from:
Copyright 2000 by Nina Bruhns. All rights reserved.
South Louisiana, present day
Sahara Jensen glared up at the long, yellow silk thread hanging from the trunk of a slimy cypress tree and swore roundly. Spitting out a few drops of disgusting swamp water, she quickly hoisted herself back into the floating disaster the rental place had optimistically called a boat.
Falling into the swamp hadn't been one of her better moves. Cripes, she was lucky she hadn't been eaten by alligators or attacked by snakes, or leeches, or some other equally hideous creature while floundering in the black water.
Scowling at the accursed thread, Sahara pulled her drenched ponytail forward and attempted to wring it out. Greasy mud, bits of rotting foliage and duckweed clung to her everywhere.
Great. Now, on top of everything else, she'd have to ride the bus back to the hotel in Lafayette looking like the creature from the black lagoon... if she found her way back to the bus.
She rubbed her forehead. The relentless, high-pitched hum of insects ground on her nerves. The cypress tree with its silk thread hung over her boat like a street-hawker, mocking her, one of a multitude of ragged, moss-draped trees closing in from every direction—all identical.
This could not be happening. She couldn't be lost. Not in the smelliest, most alligator-infested swamp in all of South Louisiana. She refused to believe it, even when confronted with the stark evidence of her vanished trail of bread crumbs. Well, yellow ribbons, to be more accurate.
And she'd thought she'd been so clever.
She eyed a suspicious-looking bumpy log that floated several yards from the boat and repressed a shiver. A drop of sweat oozed down between her breasts. Damn, it was hot.
Plucking at her T-shirt, she resettled herself on the plank seat of her small rented motorboat next to her precious bag of cameras—thankfully dry—and took a deep breath. There had to be a way out of this fetid-smelling hellhole of a swamp. There had to be.
She'd been cruising around in circles for hours, searching for the yellow ribbons she'd carefully tied to trees within sight of each other to guide her back to Gerroux, the tiny hamlet where she'd picked up the boat. She hadn't found a single ribbon. Only the bit of thread she was staring at now.
Silently, she cursed the whole ill-fated expedition. First, the guide she'd hired had backed out with no explanation. Then, setting out on her own, she hadn't even located any of the damned orchids she needed to find. And now this.
She couldn't be lost. Hell, it was Monday and she had a deadline to meet.
She'd promised Miles Landau at National Geographic a photo of the rare and illusive orchidus clitorius by Friday. This assignment was her ticket to the big-time, and she'd rather die in this god-forsaken swamp than lose her hard-earned opportunity.
A trickling sound brought her attention to the bottom of the flimsy craft. A good three inches of water sloshed there—about an inch more than an hour ago. Her eyes flicked uneasily to the floating log. Was it her imagination, or was it following her?
She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and swallowed the metallic tingle of fear blossoming in her throat, then looked around again desperately. Her attention was snagged by a sudden flash of light, sun on metal.
It was then she saw them.
Two men. Noiselessly floating in a shiny aluminum boat. Big, by the look of them. Dark. Both wearing jeans and T-shirts, one had a slim black mustache and black hair cascading over his shoulders. The other's hair was shorter, neater, no mustache, but he was no less dangerous-looking for that.
Sahara's heartbeat kicked up and she put a protective hand on her cameras. Two pairs of black eyes followed the movement, observing her from similar square-jawed, angular faces. They weren't smiling.
Then again, they didn't look exactly menacing either. More like... appraising.
They glided closer, their motor a nearly silent thrum against the incessant song of the insects. The two men exchanged a glance. One of them nodded.
Her pulse shot up.
"Comment ça va?" the man with short hair said. "You lost?"
She licked her lips, debating whether or not to lie. She was alone, no weapon, and these two strangers were looking at her like she might be their next meal.
A huge black snake swam past her boat. Oh, God. She didn't think she could stay in this swamp much longer and remain sane.
"I don't know how it happened," she said to the men. "I was so careful when I tied the ribbons. I'd be grateful if you could show me—"
"Fall in?" the long-haired man with the mustache interrupted, his gaze lingering on her wet clothes as the two came up alongside.
"What?" Her face flamed, realizing what he must be looking at. She folded her arms over her chest, struggling not to show her nervousness. "'Fraid so. Any chance you could show me the way to Gerroux? I have to make the eight o'clock bus back to Lafayette from there."
"Plen'y of time," Mr. Mustache said in a soft Cajun accent. "Toss me your gear and climb in." He held out his hand expectantly.
Alarm tingled over her scalp. She didn't care how sexy his accent was, climbing in wasn't an option. She'd heard about hot-blooded Cajun men.
She met his black eyes and, suddenly, it hit her how very attractive he was. She glanced at the other man and swallowed. How attractive they both were. Mercy. Her heart stood still, then zinged into double-time.
She didn't move.
"Come on in, chère," the short-haired one said. "'Less you'd rather stay lost?"
"Couldn't I just follow you?" she asked anxiously.
"Dat boat, she looks like she goin' down fast, an' I can't tow it wit' you in it."
Mr. Mustache tipped his head. "You have any idea just how dangerous the swamp is? For someone who don' know it?"
"I—" She followed his gaze to one end of the bumpy log still hovering nearby, and, to her horror, a sinister yellow eye winked back at her. She almost jumped out of her skin.
Oh, Lord. What could she do? She couldn't stay out here by herself. She'd be dead by nightfall for sure—either by some repulsive creature or from a heart attack. She searched the men's faces carefully and still saw no sign of ill intent.
Of course, neither had Jeffrey Dahmer's victims.
As if sensing her hesitation, Mr. Mustache slowly reached for the strap of her camera bag and said, "I'm Jacque Cherchat. Dis here's my brother, Quint. We'd be happy to get you to dat bus."
He smiled then. A smile that was sweet and sultry and guileless all at the same time. And indescribably erotic. The effect dazzled her senses. Eyes the color of black diamonds sparkled back at her, lips that would make a sculptor weep curved reassuringly. Lord, he was gorgeous.
Her reluctance foundered.
"Please, call me Jacque."
She'd probably regret this later, but it wasn't like she had a big choice at the moment. "All right," she relented. "Thanks, Jacque. I appreciate your help. My name's Sahara. Sahara Jensen."
She let him take her camera bag. "Careful with that, though." She stood to step into the other boat. "My whole livelihood is inside that bag."
"Don' worry," he said soothingly. "Quint an' me, we'll take good care of you." He grasped her by the waist and easily lifted her over the side, setting her on her feet just in front of him. "Real good care."
It was a good thing he didn't let her go right away, because for some inexplicable reason she couldn't get her knees to work properly. "Thanks," she croaked and collapsed onto the narrow bench crowding the back of her legs. "I need to get back to Gerroux in time to arrange for another guide tonight."
Behind her at the rudder, she heard Quint grab the bow rope from her boat and tie it to the back of theirs. "Could be tough," he remarked. When she threw a worried frown over her shoulder, he added, "Only official guide around, he was suddenly called away today." He adjusted the throttle and the sleek aluminum craft cut through the water, steered along a sure path by her rescuer.
"Yes, I know," she said wryly, remembering her frustration that morning upon hearing of the man’s precipitous departure—which had gotten her into this predicament. "Surely there must be someone else who can guide me?" She turned from Quint to his brother.
"Now, dat depends on what you're looking for."
Handsome Jacque sat facing her on the forward bench, which was so close it barely left breathing space between them. His broad shoulders stretched a black T-shirt with the sleeves cut out, his biceps, arms and hands rippling with strength. His well-worn jeans covered iron-hard, muscular thighs. Suddenly she realized her legs were pinned firmly between them, her knees practically touching his—
"So, what are you looking for, chère?" The corner of his sexy mouth curled, letting her know he was fully aware of her body's position.
With difficulty, she resisted the urge to scoot back on her bench and sat perfectly still instead. "Orchids. I'm here to take photos of orchids."
"A photographer," he said thoughtfully. "I see. You lookin' for a particular kind of orchid?"
She nodded. "Yes, Orchidus ..." She stammered to a halt. Damn. She'd never actually had to say the name out loud before. She felt her cheeks go hot. There was no way she could make herself utter the orchid's ridiculous Latin name in front of—
"Orchidus clitorius?" the rogue helpfully supplied, his lips curving even more disreputably. He lifted a brow.
She avoided his eyes and studied the passing foliage intently. "Yes."
"Now isn' dat a coincidence," Quint said from behind her. "Jacque an' me, we saw a couple of them jus' d'other day, didn' we, Chat?"
"In full bloom an' pretty as can be."
"Really?" She dared a glance at Jacque.
She ignored the amusement gleaming in his dark eyes and forced herself not to notice the coal black tendrils of hair that framed his face and shoulders. She'd always had a thing for wild black hair on a man. And this man was Cajun to boot. A fatal combination.
She attempted to focus in on the ray of hope that had unexpectedly opened in her abysmal mess of a day. "Would you be willing to show me those orchids? Tomorrow, say?"
He looked at her, considering. "Oh, I don'—"
"I'll pay you," she rushed to explain. "Not a lot, you understand, but what I was going to give the other guide. I—"
"Not interested in your money," he said with a shake of his head, then looked over her shoulder at his brother. "You interested in her money, Quint?"
"Mais non." She could hear the gallic shrug in Quint's voice. "But mebbe we could show her anyway. Jus' to be neighborly. What'ya say, mon frère? Got anythin' goin' tomorrow?"
She gazed hopefully at Jacque, her whole future riding on the whim of this stranger.
Hell, she wasn't above begging. "Please?" She gave her eyelashes a bat for good measure.
To her relief, he smiled. "C'est bien. I expec' we can work somethin' out."
She decided not to think about what he meant by that remark. "Thank you. You don't know how much this means to me. I have a deadline Friday, and I really need those pictures."
"You on assignment?" he casually asked, his eyes wandering over her body.
"National Geographic. Freelance." It felt strange in her mouth, saying the unfamiliar words, but it was a huge rush, embodying all she'd ever wanted from life—money, prestige, security. Nobody would ever laugh at her again. All hinging on this one assignment.
"Mais, I'm impressed, me."
She bit her lip. "But only if I get these orchid photos. Otherwise, it's right back to the Daily Currier."
"Important assignment. I suppose that's why you came out all by yourself?"
She nodded. "I didn't have a choice."
He pinned her with a look. "Risky thing, wanderin' 'round the swamp on your own. Real risky. People get lost all da time. Disappear, even." Jacque's calm demeanor took most of the threatening edge off his words, but not entirely.
"Then it's lucky you were here to rescue me," she said, shifting nervously. Her trapped knees knocked against the insides of his powerful thighs.
A smile spread across his sensuous mouth and, for a split second, his legs tightened against hers. "Our pleasure."
A shiver vibrated through her whole body at the sudden prospect of being carried off and ravished by these two handsome strangers. Or maybe it was the prospect of being carried off and ravished by these two handsome strangers and liking it.
She scrambled for something to say to send her mind in a different direction than the one in which it was straying. "I tied markers to trees so I could find my way out of the swamp. I can't imagine what happened to them all."
She felt a gentle tug from behind as Quint pulled the loose ribbon from her ponytail. "Dey all look like dis?"
Her hand went instinctively to her hair, still wet and no doubt filled with twigs and duckweed. She didn't even want to think about what an unsavory mess she must look like.
Quint dangled the ribbon over her shoulder and Jacque took it, shaking his head. "No wonder they disappeared."
"What do you mean?"
"Luke Thibodeaux," Quint said, as if that made everything clear.
Jacque tapped his forehead. "He's a bit slow, him. But he loves his fille. And dat girl, she likes buttons and bows and pretty things like silk ribbons in her hair. Guess he didn' see the harm in helpin' himself."
She gasped, scandalized. "But I could have died out here!"
"Ah, mais non, chérie," Jacque said with a grin. "Luke, he tol' everyone he saw how he come by dem." He leaned forward and put his arms around her neck to retie the ribbon in her hair. Her skin sizzled from the contact. "Quint an' me, we figured somebody'd be pretty ticked off when they found dem ribbons missin', an' came out to have a look. Imagine our surprise when we found a jolie fille in need of rescuing."
His face shifted closer to hers. Close enough to feel his warm breath on her cheeks. Close enough to see his long, dark lashes and the little crinkles at the corner of his black, expressive eyes.
Close enough to kiss.
"Usually it's IRS or ATF agents."
"Huh?" She blinked, no idea what he was talking about.
"Ah, here we are. Home."
Sahara gave herself a mental shake and looked in the direction he was pointing. A rickety wooden jetty stuck out precariously into the swamp. Tucked into the trees behind it was a small, ancient house on stilts. Made of neatly whitewashed clapboard, it was surrounded by a wooden gallery, its roof pitched in the distinctive Cajun style. The cabin was something straight out of National Geographic.
Or, take away the stilts and gallery and put it in the middle of the desert, and the tiny grizzled structure could be something right out of her own past. She felt instantly claustrophobic.
The sensual spell Jacque had woven shattered, replaced by alarm. "What's this? I thought you were taking me to the bus?"
Jacque looked at her placidly. "Bus won' be there for ages. You can get cleaned up here. Play your cards right, I might even make you some of my world-famous gumbo for supper. Nothin' to eat at dat bus stop."
She looked uneasily from him to Quint, who'd hopped onto the jetty and was busy tying up the boats. She glanced at the shack. Despite its age, it looked well-kept and welcoming. White curtains fluttered behind bright blue shutters and a pair of rockers sat invitingly to one side of the front door. A wind-chime tinkled softly from the porch ceiling. Not exactly the sort of place a pair of serial killers would live.
Besides, she really could use a bar of soap and a washcloth. The gumbo didn't sound bad, either.
Against her better judgment, she assented. "Okay. Just as long as I make that bus."
Skittish. Very skittish.
Jacque watched the bathroom door close behind pretty Sahara Jensen and counted to ten, more than half expecting it to fly open once she discovered there was no lock.
Non, mais non. She was nothing like the women he and Quint had occasionally brought home in the past. Those women had all been eager, enthusiastic participants in the seduction game, looking forward to a night of unparalleled pleasure and kinky sex with the infamous Cherchat boys.
The corner of his mouth tugged upward. This could be fun.
It was amazing that she was on assignment for National Geographic. He'd have to give his old friend Miles Landau a call. Put in a good word for her. By the time they let her go, he'd surely owe her at least that much.
"Dieu, she's a shy one," Quint remarked, perusing the well-stocked wine rack for a good vintage. "I think I'm in love."
"She's mine," Jacque reminded his brother coolly. "You can share—if Lisette doesn' get here an' skin your hide first. But I call the shots on dis one."
"Whatever you say, little brother," Quint agreed amiably and lifted the cork from the bottle he'd chosen.
A French label and very expensive, Jacque noted. He approved. This was a special occasion.
The shower went on, and they both glanced toward the bathroom. "Think she'll need a wrap when she gets out?" he wondered aloud, lifting his silk robe from the ornate wrought iron footboard of the huge bed that took up most of one side of his cabin.
"Oh, yeah. I think she will." Quint took the robe from him and headed for the bathroom. "Can't pack her off on dat bus wearing dirty clothes, now can we?"
Jacque sent him a grin. "What bus?"
Quint chuckled. "Still, better rinse out her things for her, eh?"
"I'm sure she'd be glad."
"Believe I will."
"Bien. I'll get started on the gumbo, right after I check my email and put out the day's fires at the office."
And send a quick note to Lisette...
Sahara closed her eyes and let the hot water run over her face and down her body. It felt wonderful. This was the best thing that had happened all day. She was happy she'd given in to Jacque's insistence she shower, using anti-bacterial soap to kill all the nasty germs she'd probably picked up during her unplanned dunk in the dirty swamp.
She'd had a bad moment when she'd realized there was no lock on the bathroom door, but had finally decided that, if her two rescuers had planned to jump her, they'd have done so by now. To be honest, neither had said or done anything the least bit untoward.
To be even more honest, a part of her might like it if they did.
Not that she could ever be serious about anyone who lived like this—poor and out in the middle of nowhere. Been there, done that. Never again would she be the town joke, laughed at for living in a one-room shack with parents who didn't believe in the benefits of money.
But she wasn't talking serious here. She'd only be staying a couple hours at most. And with the two of them competing for her, well, she should be safe enough.
The door clicked softly and she cautiously peeked around the curtain. No one there. Must have been the natural creaking of a house built on stilts over the water. She gave her hair a final wash and rinse, shut off the water and reached for a towel. She was really going to hate putting on those damp, filthy clothes again.
Except they were gone.
She stared at the empty space on the rack where she'd left her clothes and her pulse went into hyperspace. So much for being safe. They'd just been waiting until she was clean and naked.
A soft knock sounded on the door and she jumped a foot.
"Chère?" Quint's voice crept through the solid wood. "I took your clothes outside and gave 'em a good washin'. Go 'head an' use Jacque's bathrobe till they dry. It's hanging on the peg, non?"
She sagged with relief. "Um, okay."
"There's also some things in da cabinet you might need."
"Thanks." Forcing herself to be calm, she grabbed the silk dressing gown and wrapped herself in it. It was huge. The hem dragged the floor, the shoulders hit her elbows and the sleeves hung several inches past her fingers. It also smelled like Jacque.
Stunned that she'd recognize his unique smell, she lifted the sleeve to her nose and inhaled deeply. A little musky, a little spicy, and oh, so very male.
A tiny sound stole from her. It had been a long time since she'd been with a man, and until this very moment she hadn't realized how much she'd missed it.
No. She didn't miss it. Not all of it, anyway. Just this—the smell of a man completely enveloping her, weaving it's sensual, mystical spell around her will and her senses. Claiming her. Reducing her hormones to needy supplicants at the altar of potent male pheromones.
She took another breath. There was something innately erotic about Jacque's scent. A hint of exotic cologne mixed with the clean smell of a healthy man's body. And more. A note of something she couldn't quite place. Almost like... home cooking?
Her stomach growled, putting an unglamorous end to her sensual reverie. She sniffed again. Hell, that was no bathrobe, that was supper.
She rolled up the robe's sleeves and poked through the cabinet, finding a new toothbrush, a mascara and a blusher. Obviously whichever brother lived here was used to having women around. Women who needed to renew their make-up.
Whose house was it, anyway? She'd only seen one bed in the large one-room cabin, and just the one robe had hung in the bathroom. Jacque's robe.
A quick sting of irrational jealousy stabbed through her. She firmly squelched it. The man was gorgeous. Shoot, both of them were gorgeous. Back in New Orleans, she'd have killed for a date with either one of the Cherchat brothers. They were attractive and nice, and apparently Jacque could cook, too. Naturally, women would be hanging all over them.
She shrugged. None of her concern. She'd be out of their lives before she knew it. She was only grateful to the women who'd trained them well enough to keep spare make-up in the bathroom cabinet. She happily made use of it and the toothbrush as well.
Folding a towel around her hair, she emerged to find Jacque standing in front of the stove and Quint sitting at a small kitchen table, both men sipping wine. A third glass had been poured and sat in front of an empty chair at the table.
The cabin consisted of one large room, divided by a big, cushy sofa and easy chair into a bedroom area and a kitchen-living room area. There was a desk in one corner, and bookshelves scattered around the walls, filled with a variety of books and magazines. The small, neat kitchen contained an impressive assortment of copper and Calaphon pots and pans hanging from a rack over the stove. The bed was huge, with ornate wrought iron head and footboards, and was canopied by a full-length baire, or mosquito net.
Quint stood. "Vien, join us. Da gumbo is nearly ready. Feel better now?"
In the kitchen, Jacque was leaning against the stove. His gaze traveled the length of her, taking in every detail. She clutched his robe tight to her breasts. She'd tied the belt as tightly as she could, but made as it was for his bigger frame, the front still hung wide open. Her legs were exposed to the thigh as she walked to the table, the robe’s hem trailing on the floor behind her.
"C'est grand, ça. Big, I see," he remarked, his eyes lingering on her bare legs.
"A little." She gathered it closer and slipped into the chair.
"No matter. You won' be wearin' it for long."
She gaped at him. A shiver skittered up her spine at the implication of his words. Her nipples tightened unexpectedly, sending a startlingly sharp spurt of sexual desire deep into her belly.
"Dat's right." Quint slid the wine glass over to her and smiled. "Your clothes'll be dry in no time."
She blinked, scandalized at the conclusion she'd leapt to, and worse, her body's reaction to it. "I hope so," she murmured.
She was really losing it. Much longer with these two and no telling what she'd do. She looked around for a clock. Four-thirty. "How far are we from Gerroux?" she asked.
"'Bout half an hour," Quint said. "Drink up."
She lifted the glass to her lips, and was suddenly struck by a terrible thought. The towel around her hair had slid to her shoulders.
"Somethin' wrong, chère?" Quint looked at her inquiringly.
"No..." With a shaky hand, she set the glass back on the table and fumbled with the towel.
Jacque put down his ladle, licked his finger and sauntered over. He picked up the wine. "Smell off?"
"Or maybe you're afraid we put somethin' in it?" He winked, and picked up her glass.
"Of course not, I..." She watched, mesmerized, as he took a big swallow, her own throat following the movement of his Adam's apple. "I was just—"
"See? Nothin' to worry 'bout."
His tongue slid out to capture a drop of burgundy liquid on the rim. He handed the glass back to her and she had to use two hands to take the damned thing, they shook so badly.
"What would I have to be worried about?" she stammered inanely. Her robe gaped open, and she almost dropped the glass grabbing for the lapels. The towel slid even further down her back.
Jacque eyed her breasts. "You mean besides bein' alone wit' two strange
men, both big enough and strong enough to make you do most anything they want?
Or you being naked under dat dressin' gown, wit' no way to escape us and no
idea where you are even if you could?"
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