Coming September 2012
“If it were any smaller, I’d need a magnifying glass.” Maggie Howell stared at the man standing in front of her. Noticing the flushed and exasperated expression on his face, she smiled. Gracing him with her best coquettish look, she brushed the wayward curls away from her face.
“You’re overreacting, Maggie.”
Maggie loved her job and she’d do what she had to in order to earn her money, and maybe a name for herself. But even this was asking a lot.
“Maggie, it’s the best I can do for you.”
“Joe, you can’t really expect me to do this under these circumstances. It’s a blatant waste of my experience. I’ve got a lot more to offer than this is worth.” She walked across the room and stared out the window overlooking Shreveport.
“Here’s the money and everything else you’ll need.”
Maggie turned back to him and accepted the envelope and small plastic pouch. Staring down at them, an odd sense of anxiety overwhelmed her. It still amazed her she could get paid for doing what she loved. She more than earned the money on every call.
Not once though, had she ever worried whether or not she was good at what she did. Of course I am, she reminded herself silently. Her job had taken her into the private chambers of some of the state’s most influential men. None had been disappointed in her performance.
“Maggie, are you all right?”
Joe’s voice startled her and the envelope slipped out of her hand, falling to the floor. When she stooped to pick it up, her watch chain caught on the black stockings she’d just bought. A thin run shimmied up her calf.
“I really need you to do this, Maggie.”
Straightening up, Maggie sighed. “I can’t believe I’m actually going to do this.”
She turned a scrutinizing gaze on him and continued, “What am I going to do when everyone finds out how low I’ve been forced to sink by the likes of you?”
Moving away from him, Maggie’s foot caught the strap of her overnight bag, and she toppled against Joe. His arms wrapped intimately around her. She felt his chest rise and fall with each breath he gulped.
“I’ve dreamed of this for years, Maggie, but I always thought you’d like me when you fell into my waiting arms.”
Maggie hastily pushed away from him. When she looked up at his face, she found his eyes sparkling with mischief. She swatted at him playfully.
Holding up the envelope, she winked. “It’s just a good thing for you, I can be bought.”
“I knew you only liked me for my money,” Joe teased.
“I would have liked you even more if you’d found someone else to send to little, itty-bitty Port Ray. I’ve done bigger fluff stories than this.”
“Maggie, I think you’re underestimating the importance of this assignment. You were picked because you have a nose for digging out the meaty parts of a story,” Joe consoled.
Frowning, Maggie held her hands in front of her. “I don’t call small-town organized crime a big news flash. It’s everywhere and nobody cares about it. I’m only agreeing to do this because you helped me get on with the paper. Plain and simple, I owe you.”
“This has nothing to do with me. It came from the big cheese himself.”
Her hands dropped to her sides and she smiled. “Mr. Atkins really asked specifically for me?” Maggie enjoyed the warmth of pride burning in her cheeks.
“Read it for yourself.” Joe handed her a piece of paper and smiled.
Maggie read the words scribbled on pale blue office stationary. She glanced up at Joe, letting some of the disappointment of her latest assignment slip away. Even she couldn’t deny the personal satisfaction of a request straight from the boss.
Maggie remembered her first meeting with Joe. She’d pretty much bullied him into hiring her when she’d applied for the assistant reporter position at the Shreveport Daily. Guilt over her tactics led her to work grueling hours making it up to him.
She’d walked over a lot of people to get to this point in her career. Not something she was proud of, but she’d worked twice as hard to justify her actions. She’d sworn to never move so much as one little step backwards in her career. Small-time crime in Port Ray, Louisiana seemed like a giant step back. Maggie remained confident her talent should be carrying her to Washington, not to a hick town no one even bothered putting on a map.
“You have a local contact when you get there.” Joe handed her a file folder.
Eyeing him suspiciously, Maggie opened the manila cover. “Paul Remington,” she said thoughtfully. “Didn’t he do a story on this for some local sheet?” She’d read his stuff before. Good reporting, but very emotionless. She could only imagine the kind of guy he’d turn out to be. “What does he have to do with my story?”
“He has an angle on Anthony Greely and his connection to the family. From what I can gather, there’s some kind of feud between Remington’s family and Greely’s. Paul’s determined to blow the lid on this one.”
“So, you want to team me up with someone who has a grudge? That’s nice, Joe.”
Maggie leafed through the pages, making mental notes. She’d do some investigating on her own and only use Remington if she had to. If she had to spend weeks in some hick town digging up dirt, she fully intended to get full credit for the story. No partnerships on this one.
“I’m gonna do this, Joe, but I’m gonna do it my way. On my own.” She knew she was pushing him.
“Just make contact when you get there. I’m going to be checking up on you. Try to keep in mind, that I am still your boss.” Rubbing his temples, he leaned against the edge of his cluttered desk. “Two weeks, Maggie.”
“Really?” Glancing at her watch, she realized with surprise that she had less than an hour to make the flight Joe had booked for her. She’d make it though, since she didn’t have any family she didn’t need to tell anyone goodbye. “Guess I’d better get a move on. Time is money.”
* * *
Paul Remington loosened his Tasmanian Devil tie as he paced the tiny office. His tennis shoes squeaked on the linoleum floor. Trying to ignore the annoying sound, he turned his attention back to his boss. “What makes you think I wanna work with a big-time, Shreveport reporter? I started this story, and I can damn well finish it on my own.” Paul slammed his hand down on the desk. “I don’t need some big-shot know-it-all breathing down my neck while looking over my shoulder.”
“Paul, this reporter’s got contacts you need. This could be the ticket for you to get on with the Daily,” Hal appealed.
“I can do it on my own,” Paul demanded. “I’ve got as much, if not more, experience than most of those damn city reporters. Besides, what makes you think I even want to work for the Shreveport Daily?”
Rolling his eyes, Hal challenged him. “Yeah right. I know how appealing this town is, and I’m quite sure you want to grow old here. You can get fat and bald with the rest of us yahoos.” Pushing out of his chair, Hal Parker moved to the file cabinet. He opened the top drawer and pulled out a stack of papers. He tossed them across the desk and they slid to rest in front of Paul.
“What are these?” Lifting the top few sheets, Paul skimmed the print. “Why do I need these? I’m not working with anyone else. I don’t need to know what he wrote.”
Sighing deeply, Hal sat back down. The old chair groaned in protest under the added weight. “You know something, Remington, that’s your biggest problem.”
The pseudo-antique desk chair Paul chose to sit in creaked as he spun around. His gaze landed on Hal’s belly. He focused on a deep yellow mustard stain staring back at him. “What are you rambling about?”
“You’re so close-minded. What could it hurt to give her stuff a look-see?”
“I beg your pardon?” Paul bolted up out of the chair, sending it flying into the wall behind him. A woman?
“Did I forget to mention, he’s a she?” Hal grinned. “Silly me.”
Paul’s mouth dropped open and he shook his head back and forth. “You can’t be serious. You want to send a damn woman in to investigate and crucify an organized crime family? How can you even begin to justify that?”
Paul jerked around, his elbow slammed against the corner of his metal file cabinet, and he cursed Alvin Greely and his slimy brother. When they’d cornered him at the courthouse earlier in the week, he’d been caught off guard. Nobody in their right mind roughs up a reporter at the courthouse. Then again, the Greelys had never been in their right minds. Even in their youth, all the brothers had been loose cannons. It didn’t help now that they were all grown and on the move. He rubbed the tender spot on his elbow. Packston Greely had power flowing through his veins. He never passed up a chance to show the kingpins he had what it took to run with the pack.
Paul had been in Port Ray all of his life and had no intention of letting the mob take over. Even if the fools thought they had a right. They were small time hoods and Paul figured he had a responsibility to let the rest of the town know it. New Orleans had been a hot bed of mafia activity for as long as anyone could remember. He knew, realistically, he could do little to change things, but he’d sure as hell die trying.
“Work with me on this, Paul. I need the story and the exposure could do us both some good. Atkins is one of my oldest friends and he wouldn’t send this woman if she wasn’t the best. Just meet the lady and see what she has to offer.”
Locking his gaze on Hal, Paul made his opinion clear. “I don’t like this one bit, and I resent you manipulating me this way.”
Paul could get past the partnership, but as far as he was concerned, women had no business messing with organized crime. No matter what. He had better things to do with his time than babysit a prissy little fluff writer who wanted to make a name for herself.
After stuffing his papers into the worn leather briefcase, Paul left the small one-story building, and headed for his brother’s place. As he drove, he devised a plan. He’d meet with this reporter, give her some of the gorier aspects of his findings, and she’d run back to Shreveport with a tummy ache. He’d do what his boss asked, and then some. He didn’t so much have a problem with women working, but certain things should be left to the men. Men shouldn’t stay home with the babies, and women shouldn’t mess with the mob. That’s just the way things should be.
* * *
Maggie stepped into the small-town bar. Stopping, she gave her eyes a moment to adjust to the change in light. She’d been walking along the main drag, checking out the town. The bright lights and sparkling signs painted a portrait of a miniature New Orleans. When she’d spotted the old wood-carved sign, Chaser’s, she’d decided to go in.
Maggie felt the thumping of the Cajun music throbbing through her body. Port Ray was a far cry from Shreveport. It was simple, almost quaint. The two-story wood building pulsated with passion around her, years of history etched in the walls. She smiled at the perky blonde waitress behind the bar and returned her wave. Couples sat at several tables scattered around the room. Most kept their heads together, and very few looked up as she made her way across to the bar.
When she approached, only one stool sat empty. Next to the vacant seat sat the most intensely good-looking man she’d ever seen. His sandy brown bangs swooped down across his forehead. Raising her hand, she fought back an unwelcome urge to brush the locks aside. She was saved from total humiliation when his hand absently brushed them back, exposing noticeably indifferent eyes.
Maggie stepped up and motioned toward the stool. “Is this seat taken?”
Barely glancing in her direction, he ignored her question.
A flicker of light caught the silver flecks around his pupils and she stared. Maggie assumed she’d imagined the spark of something in his eyes before he glanced away.
“It’s empty, sweetie,” the waitress said, smiling at her. “What can I get you?”
“Thank you,” she stressed, glaring at the rude stranger.
Maggie slipped the strap of her bag over the back of the stool. It tipped precariously when she let it go. Struggling to stop the chair from falling, her elbow knocked up against her neighbor.
“Ouch! Would you mind picking on someone your own size?”
Momentarily taken aback, she stepped away from him. Well, Maggie snickered, another point for friendly Port Ray. It seemed a shame for such a handsome face had to be marred by a scowl. She watched as he emptied his glass.
“Bonnie, can I get a refill?” The man slid his empty glass across the bar, and scribbled something on the legal pad in front of him without even looking up.
Maggie wondered what had upset him and caused the wrinkle across his brow. He glanced her direction. She stopped breathing when his deep blue eyes locked with hers. Totally and completely mesmerized, she stared.
White-hot chips of ice flashed in the depths of his stare and her insides melted into liquid fire when he smiled at her. The warm smile contradicted the chill of his gaze.
Maggie shivered as the baritone strains of his voice plucked the strings of her composure. Unable to think of anything even remotely intelligent, she lowered her head, hoping the dim lighting would hide her embarrassment.
Within the flash of a second, his attention moved onto another man who’d appeared behind the bar. She listened quietly as the two men talked.
“Holt, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do. I started this whole thing, and I really don’t understand why Hal’s making me pair up with someone else.”
“Look, little brother. You’re the one who wanted to stay here in Port Ray. You know how everyone thinks. Anyone who’s still here will always be here. I get the feeling you’re ready to move on with your life, and I think Hal’s trying to help you out.”
Maggie watched the man empty his glass for the second time since she’d arrived. He slammed the glass down on the bar. “She’s a damn woman.”
The sharpness of his voice startled her and seltzer water sloshed over the rim of her glass.
The man behind the bar laughed.
“So, that’s what this is all about. Your fragile little ego has a pinhole in it. You think this big town reporter is going to come in and make you look bad.”
Momentarily blinded by the light shining in her head, Maggie soaked in this new bit of information. Here she sat, next to the man she’d been bullied into working with, on her story.
“Hey, I’m no chauvinist. I like women as well as the next guy, but I think they should know their limits. Why would a woman want to go and put herself in danger over something like this?”
“For the same reason you big strong studs do,” the waitress chimed in. “It’s an exciting rush.”
Maggie accepted the fresh drink the barmaid set in front of her.
“Thanks for the input, Bonnie Bell. This is a big help coming from the most exciting waitress I know.”
Maggie’s opinion of her neighbor dropped considerably with each word he said. She’d struggled against his kind of testosterone-induced mentality for years, trying to work her way up to lead reporter. Male reporters had the mistaken impression all women were frail and helpless. She’d struggle valiantly to dispel the theory proclaiming all women intellectual idiots. No man would tell her she couldn’t run with the big dogs. She’d done more than her fair share of fluff stories, and now it was her turn to shine.
“Don’t bust her butt, Paul. She’s right. Women are pretty much capable of doing anything we can.”
Maggie looked at the man behind the bar and smiled at him. “Better,” she mumbled. She relaxed when he winked at her.
“I’m sorry, did you say something?” Paul turned on her.
“I think her drink is too strong.”
Maggie sighed with relief, thankful for the bartender’s intervention on her behalf.
“Well, since she’s right here, let’s ask this pretty little lady next to me what she thinks,” her new partner suggested.
Maggie shuddered at his condescending tone and fought down her urge to slap the smug look off his face. Why did men always have to draw the battle lines with the gender issue? Sure, she was a woman, but the way he said it made it sound more like a curse than a blessing.
“Ask me what?” she purred at him in her sweetest drawl.
“What do you think about women doing dangerous jobs, chère?”
Smiling sweetly, Maggie lowered her lashes. “Well,” she said softly, “I can’t imagine what I’d do if I didn’t have some big strong man to do all those horrible things for me. I think it’s a man’s job to protect us.”
“There you go, Holt. I rest my case.”
The man behind the bar crossed his arms over his chest. “What do you do for a living, Miss…?” He looked at her questioningly, “If I’m not being too personal.”
“I’ll bet you’re a secretary in some big fancy office. Right?” Paul smacked his hand on the bar and smiled.
Maggie considered her words very carefully, allowing herself time to cool down. “What would you say if I told you I worked as a construction supervisor on an offshore rig for a major oil company?”
“Big fat liar,” Paul said teasingly. “You’re far to pale and pretty to be in that line of work. You definitely fit the pencil-pushing part.”
“Is that so bad?”
“Not for a woman.”
“Okay, maybe I’m a lieutenant for one of Louisiana’s most notorious crime syndicates.”
“Yeah, right.” Paul snorted.
“What do you do?” Maggie asked.
“I’m a field reporter for the local newspaper.”
“How terribly exciting for you.”
“Yeah, but you still haven’t told us what you really do.”
“My name is Maggie, and I’m the lead reporter at the Shreveport Daily. I’m in town to investigate the allegations of small-time mob activity.”
Heat shimmied up Paul’s neck until his ears ignited into flames of humiliation. Rotating his stool, he moved until he sat facing her. He considered what to say, feeling confident whatever he chose would not be accepted graciously.
“I’m Paul Remington.”
She ignored his outstretched hand.
A chill swept up the length of his spine. “I guess you think I’m a real jerk.”
“I guess you’re a lot brighter than I gave you credit for, Mr. Einstein.”
“Ouch! That’s quite an attitude you’ve got there, chère.”
“Yeah, well, it ain’t diddley compared to yours.”
Paul watched her silently as anger flashed gold in her hazel eyes. When she picked up her glass, he wondered if he would soon find himself wearing its contents. Instead, she drained the glass and slid it across the bar toward the smiling waitress.
“Well, Mr. Remington, you now know who I am, and I wish I could say it’s been a pleasure meeting you, but I’m going to assume you are smart enough to know I’d be lying, so…” Her pink lips puckered seductively as she let the word roll slowly out of her mouth.
Opening his mouth to speak, he thought twice, and promptly shut it.
Spinning the stool around, she stood up. “Damn!” The strap on her bag snapped, sending it, and its contents, scattering all over the floor.
Paul sat perfectly still while she picked up the loose papers. She mumbled to herself as she worked and he thought she looked soft and whimsical. Not the type to sneak around dark alleys trying to find dirt on mobsters.
She pulled her bag against her chest and stood. “Thanks for the help. Don’t ever let anyone tell you chivalry isn’t dead.” She turned to walk away, but stopped.
“What is it, chère?” Paul asked.
“I promised my boss I would make contact with you when I got to town. I have. Now, stay the hell out of my way.”
Paul stared after her, speechless. Her jeans tightly hugged the lower portion of her body. The subtle sway of her hips, as she stormed across the room, set him on fire. He inhaled deeply, trying to recapture the smell of her perfume. He got a breath full of stale cigarette smoke for his effort. Her tawny brown hair blew back when she yanked the door open, and his spirits dipped dangerously low as she disappeared out into the humid night.
Staring blindly at the door, he considered going after her. Why? To apologize? Why should he apologize? He’d only expressed his feelings. He had a constitutional right to his own opinion, he’d be damned if he was going to be sorry for it.
“Well, Paul, I’d say you made quite an impression on her. I almost think she likes you.”
Paul frowned at his brother, but held his tongue.
“She’s quite a looker. Too bad you don’t stand a snowball’s chance in “