by Blayne Cooper
Mid-western college professor Natalie Abbott is estranged from her dysfunctional family. It happened so slowly she barely noticed… Then it was too late. On the cusp of landing her dream job, Natalie is forced to New Orleans in search of her runaway teenaged brother Joshua. Desperately short of clues, she’s grateful that NOPD Detective Adele Lejeune seems to genuinely care.
Detective Lejeune’s interest in Joshua’s disappearance dangerously shifts from professional to intensely personal, as do her feelings for Natalie. The women doggedly navigate the depths of the city’s seething underbelly as they work to solve the tangled mystery that is poised to crush Natalie’s heart and leave Adele’s life in ruins.
Best-selling, award-winning author Blayne Cooper exposes the intrigue of the Big Easy in this epic story of dedication, risk and passion.
Praise for Blayne Cooper
GCLS Goldie Awards — Stranded: Winner, Best Lesbian Romance/Intrigue.
Just About Write — Cooper tells an engaging story and keeps the reader turning the pages. You can't ask for anything better in a book.
“Have a seat, Natalie.” Rose ushered her grown daughter to stand in front of a kitchen chair and pressed her into the seat with slightly more force than necessary. “Eat with me. No excuses. Your stepdad has already gone to play dominoes in the park, so it’s just us this morning.”
The doorbell rang, and Natalie was surprised to see the neighbor girl at their kitchen door. She opened it with a smile. “Good morning, Rebecca.”
“Morning.” The girl’s grin was toothless and far too adorable for her own good. The grade-schooler—Natalie had no idea exactly how old she was—was on roller skates and full of so much energy she couldn’t help but roll back and forth a bit even while trying to stand in place. “I’m selling popcorn for the neighborhood park fund. Would you like to buy some?”
“No.” Rose’s disembodied voice came from behind Natalie.
Rebecca’s face fell. Natalie quickly grabbed her purse. “Ignore her,” she whispered. “I want some, kiddo. How much?”
Rebecca’s expression instantly lit up the kitchen doorway. “Eight dollars, please.”
“Done.” Natalie handed over the money, and Rebecca dug into a sack that was slung over her shoulder and passed over a brightly colored, but depressingly small, tin of caramel corn. “Hey, has anyone ever told you that you look like the red-haired girl with the pigtails in the Wendy’s advertisements? You know—Wendy?”
Rebecca shrugged. “Only the jerks.”
Natalie snorted. “Good one. Okay, good luck with the rest of the grumpy old ladies on the block.”
She and Rebecca shared a conspiratorial grin and the girl turned on her heels and rolled away. “Thanks, Ms. Abbott!”
Natalie set the tin on the counter and closed the door. “Now I have dessert for after breakfast. And, Mom, you were so mean that I’m not sharing any with you.”
“Nobody needs dessert after breakfast,” Rose muttered.
“Says the woman who will be trying to sneak some of my delicious, gag-a-maggot sweet popcorn in about twenty minutes.” It was the weekend—thank God—and for the first time in longer than Natalie could remember she didn’t have anything to do that couldn’t wait, at least until that evening. “Breakfast smells great.”
Natalie craned her neck, trying to see into the living room to catch sight of her stepbrother. It had been a while since she’d been to the house, she privately admitted, and she half-expected to see the teen sprawled out on the couch, his gangly legs and big feet hanging off one arm of the sofa as he watched cartoons and noisily consumed cereal straight from the box.
But the living room was silent.
She frowned. “Mom, where’s Josh? I haven’t seen the runt in ages. Is he sleeping until noon on Sundays, even with his job?” He hated being called runt and she supposed, considering he was bigger than she was by several inches and at least forty pounds, it really didn’t make sense nowadays anyway. The corner of her mouth quirked upward. “Hey, runt, time to wake up!”
“Shhh. Don’t yell.” Rose spoke with her back to Natalie as she pulled some silverware from a kitchen drawer. “Josh is what I wanted to talk to you about, honey.” Her voice was breezy and even.
Natalie regarded her mother with sudden caution. Clanging alarm bells sounded in her head. That tone of voice and the endearment meant only one thing, Rose wanted something, and whatever it was, Natalie wasn’t going to like it. She felt her mood plummet with a great kerplunk.
Her mother’s kitchen—a place she’d spent endless and mostly happy childhood hours, bathed in morning sunlight, the room filled with the heavenly scent of fresh coffee—could have been a place of sanctuary for her. Well, if it weren’t for the presence of her mother. “And…?”
When Rose didn’t say another word and instead began to hum quietly to herself, Natalie rolled her eyes. The older woman knew how her daughter hated awkward silences, and knew how to use them to her advantage: to build up the tension of the moment and to make Natalie squirm like a fat worm on a fishhook. But why?
Giving in despite herself, Natalie resentfully prodded, “So I’m here…and what does it have to do with Josh?”
“Joshua is gone, honey.” Rose began plating the food.
Natalie made an impatient “hurry up” gesture with one hand. “Gone…how? Staying with a friend?”
Rose set a steaming plate of eggs and potatoes in front of her daughter. The scent was divine, but Natalie refused to take a single bite until her mother came clean about why she’d been summoned to her family home.
“Gone to New Orleans.”
The blood drained from Natalie’s face so quickly spots danced before her eyes. “What?” she roared, jumping up and tossing her paper napkin down onto her plate. Dizzy, she grasped the edge-worn Formica tabletop with both hands. “What?”
Rose gave up any pretense of doing this delicately and plopped down into her seat with a great sigh. “You heard me.”
“Mama! How could you let him? We talked about this! You promised,” she hissed.
“I didn’t let him.” Rose pointed toward Natalie’s seat with a stern finger and Natalie hesitated for only a second before sitting down. “He went on his own with stupid Mary or Marcy.”
“He has been dating that girl for a year. You know her name is Misty.” Natalie licked her lips. “But he’s coming back, right?” Please. “For school?”
“He decided finishing school wasn’t necessary.”
“He decided? He’s only sixteen!” Natalie’s face felt hot and her hands trembled. “He’s not mature enough to be on his own. He has two more years of high school and can’t drop out without parental consent.”
Rose suddenly found something terribly interesting about the inside of her coffee cup.
Natalie gasped. “You didn’t!”
Rose’s pale blue gaze snapped up to meet its twin. “He said if we didn’t sign the paper he would just write our names down himself and go anyway. At least this way he came to us and we discussed it first.”
“And that makes it better?” Natalie was stunned that things had spun this far out of control. Her goofy, teenage brother was somehow living in a far-off city and no one had gone to bring him home. It was terrifying but not wholly inconceivable. When Josh had hit his teenage years her parents simply decided that they were tired and that meant they were finished parenting. Josh was like a cookie that was still hopelessly gooey in the center, but deemed close enough, and snatched from the oven prematurely.
Her mother’s late-in-life marriage to Josh’s father was welcomed by them both, but at sixty-five years old Rose was well past the age when she should have been dealing with a kindhearted but willful teenager. Rose had barely been able to keep up with the responsibilities of being a parent during Natalie’s teenage years, much less a second child so many years later.
Natalie’s attention strayed back to the living room, as though this were a joke and she’d hear Josh burst out of his bedroom and plop himself in front of the family television set any second. “I can’t believe he ran away.”
Rose scrunched up her face. “At first, yes. But…”
Natalie turned her palms skyward. “But?”
“He ran out of money not long after he arrived, so I convinced his father to let me send him some. And since we helped him, and he has an apartment, and we know where he is, is it still running away?” Rose’s words flew out in a rapid burst and for the first time, Natalie caught a trace of real worry in her mother’s expression.
“How long has he been gone?”
“Six weeks and six days.”
“What?” Natalie spluttered for the second time in as many minutes. This time when she jumped up she bumped into the table, sending coffee splashing out of both cups.
“I can’t talk to you if you keep jumping up like that. For cripes sake, sit down!” Rose seized a wad of napkins from a wire napkin holder and began to sop up the mess.
“No!” Natalie growled, her temper on a razor’s edge. “Tell me every damn thing, and do it before I lose my mind from waiting.” Weeks, her mind chanted, he’s been on his own for weeks.
Rose finished wiping the table, then picked up her cup to take a sip of the remaining liquid. Natalie’s murderous glare stopped her in her tracks. “Fine.” She sniffed dramatically. “He asked if he could quit school and move to New Orleans. We said ‘no.’”
Natalie nodded. When Josh had come to her and told her he wanted to drop out and move out she’d forbade it. And with some mild convincing, she’d gotten her parents to agree to do the same thing.
“But he went anyway,” Rose continued. “And ran out of money and sounded like he really needed help…so I sent him some, everything we had, really, and…and didn’t tell you about it.”
Tears filled Rose’s eyes and Natalie couldn’t help the sickening realization that she wasn’t sure whether the tears were for Josh and his future, or the loss of the money.
Rose wiped at her damp cheeks. “I thought for certain he’d be home by now.”
Natalie listened, her mind racing as it replayed the same thought over and over. He’s been gone for weeks. Jesus.
“But he stopped calling ages ago, and we haven’t heard from him since.”
“Exactly how long is ages ago?”
“Five weeks ago.”
Dumbfounded, Natalie had reached her limit. “What the hell?”
“I have his address, but you need to go find him and make sure he’s okay.”
The sound in Natalie’s mind was like a screeching record needle. “No.”
“I said ‘no.’ I didn’t make this mess. You did. Go and get him yourself.”
“How can you say that?”
When Natalie just looked at her with a raised eyebrow, Rose groaned. “Please, Natalie. Please. It’s like he’s vanished, and that’s not like Joshua at all.”
“How would you know?” Natalie’s lips curled in disgust. “Have you been paying attention to him at all?”
Rose’s eyes flashed. “Have you?”
The air fled Natalie’s lungs like a popped balloon, her mother’s words piercing her heart with unerring accuracy. She sat back down and swallowed hard.
Natalie knew that she wasn’t overly involved in her stepbrother’s life. Hell, he’d been gone for most of the summer and she hadn’t even realized it. But, Joshua was so much younger—16 years—that they hadn’t grown up together. She’d been so busy for so long, it was easy to let things like phone calls and visits slide.
For a few brilliant seconds it looked as though Rose was going to apologize for her nasty dig, but instead, she muttered, “He could have at least written us a letter.”
Natalie tilted her head and regarded her mother with true disbelief. “Seriously? You thought he was going to write you an actual letter? With a pen?”
“I’ve even been checking on the computer at the library for a note.”
“You mean email?”
Rose narrowed her eyes, and her already thin lips nearly disappeared into a straight line. “I know what it’s called.”
Natalie glanced at the calendar that was pinned to the refrigerator with magnets in the shapes of fruit. “How is this possible? We texted each other earlier this summer, and I spoke to Josh on the phone a few weeks ago.”
“Did you ask him where he was?”
Natalie slapped her hand down flat on the table. “I didn’t think to ask him whether he was out of state!”
“Don’t raise your voice at me, young lady,” Rose snapped. “Spend all that energy finding your brother instead.”
When Natalie opened her mouth to protest, Rose stopped her by blurting, “You have to go for us. How can you not ca—?”
“Don’t say that I don’t care! Don’t.” Natalie ran a hand through her hair. She gave her head a little shake and allowed the locks to settle haphazardly down her back. “I love Josh. Just like you do. It’s just not a good time for me.”
Natalie turned and dumped what was left of her lukewarm coffee down the drain and began to rinse the cup. “This isn’t like the junior college where I taught last year, Mom. Tomorrow is already Monday. UW–Madison expects me to attend departmental staff meetings this week and then maintain regular office hours for the full week before classes start.” Not to mention the cost of a last-minute airline ticket and hotel would kill me this month.
Rose smoothed her hands down the apron she was wearing over white cotton pants and a bright pink flowered shirt. Then she effectively ignored everything her daughter had just said. “But you don’t actually start teaching for two more weeks. There’s still time. You’ll probably set him straight the very first day…or two…and be able to come right home.”
“You can go. Or better yet, call the police.”
Obviously appalled, Rose’s face twisted and her voice boomed. “I would never! I’m not doing anything that will get your brother arrested.”
“We can’t afford to go. I sent Josh everything we had to spare, which wasn’t much.”
“But, don’t you see? By doing that you only made it easier for him to stay away!”
“I will lose my job if I try to go myself, Natalie. I already asked at the grocery store and they said no more time off. Even part-time work is hard to come by at my age. And your stepfather isn’t well enough to travel alone.”
“Oh, my God!” Natalie threw her hands in the air, but she was starting to lose steam. When her mother was like this, talking to her was like banging her head against a stone wall. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with him, and he’s never been sick a day in his life. He’s going to outlive us all. We’re talking about his son here, Mom. Your son.”
Rose’s hard swallow was audible. “If we went we’d need two tickets. We can’t afford—” the older woman’s voice hitched.
“Stop.” Natalie released a long breath and held up her hand to forestall any more discussion. She set her cup in the drainboard and moved around to the table to stand in front of her mother. On one hand she recognized deep in her gut that she was being manipulated, but on the other, something still had to be done. “Just…stop.” It’s for Josh, her mind chanted. “I’ll go, Mom.”
“Lord…Thank you!” Rose jumped to her feet and threw plump arms around her oldest child. “You’re such a good girl. So smart and beautiful and responsible. I knew I could count on you.”
Natalie ignored the compliments that were given freely when Rose got her way.
Worry bubbled up inside Natalie and despite the shouting match that had just played out, she held her mother a little tighter and rested her chin atop a pile of gray curls that had once been the same shade of deep chestnut brown as her own. “I won’t just find him,” she reassured softly. “I’ll bring him home.”