Unease filled Nikki again. You don't know the half of it, she longed to say.
They were back at Madame's. Nikki had hardly been aware of moving through the streets. Mitch moved over to join them. Nikki could see the McManus girl talking to Brent. He was writing something down for her. Marie was speaking earnestly. She handed Brent something that appeared to be a card from her hotel. She saw him nod, and she thought that he might be agreeing to give her any information about her family she might find.
"We should have dinner somewhere," Mitch suggested.
Nikki shook her head. "I'm going to beg off. That is, if—"
"Nathan and I have the night tour," Patricia assured her. "But you must want dinner."
"Actually, I don't. I just want to get home."
The McManus girl walked into Madame's. Brent came over to where they were standing on the sidewalk. "So, what now?" he queried.
"Dinner. My stomach is growling," Mitch said.
"Nikki is all in," Patricia told him. "She's not coming with us, but you're welcome to come along."
He looked at Nikki. "Maybe. I'm walking Nikki home first."
"I'm okay. It's still light out, and the storm never came," Nikki said.
He shook his head. "I'm walking you home."
Nathan said they were going to a place on Royal Street and told Brent to come by later, and they parted company, Brent telling them not to wait for him, Patricia assuring him that they wouldn't.
"Honestly, you're welcome to go with them," Nikki said.
She glanced at him. There had been an edge to his voice.
"You're still angry."
"No, of course not."
"Yes, you are."
"All right. You have to tell me the minute you see Andrea. And it doesn't matter what's happening."
"Right. In the middle of dozens of people, I'll just wave a hand in the air and say, 'Oh, Brent, here she is, Andy Ciello, the ghost you're so eager to meet.'"
He glared at her.
She shook her head and walked past him. "Seriously," she called over her shoulder, "I'm fine. You don't need to escort me."
But she couldn't shake him.
And the truth was, she was glad.
He followed her through the gate and on to the porch, then through her private entrance.
It hit her the minute she stepped inside.
A feeling that, once again, something was subtly different.
She looked around. Nothing was out of place.
"What is it?" Brent asked tensely.
She shook her head. "Nothing."
"Okay, it's a feeling."
"Of something different. Of something having been moved. But nothing has been. So it's just another psychotic episode, I guess."
"Let's check the place out. You can make sure everything's okay."
They walked through the downstairs, then the upstairs. Nikki couldn't find anything out of order, though the feeling wouldn't go away. They wound up back in the kitchen, Nikki took two Cokes from the refrigerator.
"Hot as hell out there today," she murmured, handing him his and feeling suddenly awkward.
"Yep, N'Awlins in the heat," he said, putting on a perfect accent, causing her to smile at last.
She stepped back, though. There was a little too much charm in that smile, in that husky tone.
She was still feeling the slight rush of anger through her blood, mingled with gratitude that he was there and a feeling that there was a burning deep in the very erotic center of her body.
"You really can go to dinner."
"We can order in, too. Or cook."
She took another step back. "Listen, I'm hot, cranky and miserable. I'm going to shower. I'm feeling like a salt lick." She didn't know why, but she was suddenly sure that the last words had sounded entirely wrong. Salt… lick…
"You're welcome to do the same."
Pop in with me…
Was that what he was hearing? Or merely what her mind really meant?
"I'd have to borrow more of Julian's clothing," he said, apparently not taking any of her words at anything but face value.
"I'll tell you what, let's both shower. Then we can wander over to my B & B, I can get some clothing, and we'll pick up food on the way back here," he suggested.
"All right," she said. She hesitated. "You're staying here again?"
"That's up to you."
Her shower felt really good. She hadn't been lying about the heat. And she had felt like a salt lick.
Hot, sweaty, on fire…
She turned the water on harder, pouring shampoo into her hair, sudsing, closing her eyes as she stood under the spray, letting it thunder down. Then she opened her eyes.
* * *
It was evident that when Julian stayed, he stayed in the guest room. Pieces of his clothing hung in the closet, and a top drawer was filled with clean socks, T-shirts and Calvin Klein briefs. The soap in the shower was something brisk smelling as well, an Irish brand that left a man smelling like a "cool spring wood," according to the commercials.
The day had been a scorcher, and it was good to strip down and step beneath the spray. He'd wondered at first if he should have waited; some of the old places didn't have the water pressure for two showers going at the same time, but the spray came on hot and hard. Standing beneath it, he clenched his jaw, reminding himself that work and raging desire did not mix. He needed to keep his distance, keep a cool head. She was in serious danger, and he didn't dare let down his guard, not with the dead, and certainly not with the living.
For a split second he thought he'd imagined it, but then heard it again and knew it was all too real.
He jumped from the shower, dripping wet, naked, and tore through to the main bedroom, sprinting to the bathroom. He went for the shower curtain and ripped it from the steel rod.
Nikki screamed again as she turned, stunned at the sound of the ripping curtain.
"What?" he cried, seeing nothing at all terrifying.
"What are you doing?" she cried, reaching for the torn curtain. Her eyes slid up and down the length of his wet naked body, then rose to his eyes and locked on them. She flushed a brilliant shade of crimson.
"You screamed!" he accused her. "What the hell happened?"
She moistened her lips. Wet, sensual lips. Her lashes fell over her eyes. Rich, long lashes, ridiculously dark, considering she was a blonde.
A true honey blonde.
Top to bottom.
She made a croaking sound, uttering a word he didn't understand.
"What, Nikki?" he asked, trying to modulate his voice, moving a step closer.
Her eyes met his. "Roach," she said more clearly.
"Roach?" he repeated.
"Roach," she said, sounding angry. "A big one! The kind with wings, a Palmetto bug. It was on the shower-head, and it flew right at me."
"Roach?" It was an exhalation of relief, disbelief, even anger. Good God, the fear he had felt for her, the panic, the way his heart was rushing…
"Damn you, don't you dare be angry with me," she cried. "It startled the hell out of me."
"It startled you? You just cost me a decade of life," he told her.
She stared at him, ready to argue back. They were both tense.
And both naked.
And suddenly she wasn't angry anymore. She smiled.
"You look pretty alive to me right now," she said softly.
He knew that he did. He felt as if he were made of steel. Molten, hot and strong.
His eyes didn't fall from hers. Where her anger had paled, his suddenly soared. Maybe it was the feeling of burning with fire, constricted, conflicted.
He started to turn away, but her fingers, damp and gentle as the breeze that seemed to come with her touch, fell on his shoulder.
The way she whispered his name…
Nothing had ever made him ache with such subtle allure. He turned back.
The curtain was down. The water was still rushing. Steam rose, billowing around her. The sound was a rush in his ears, like the pounding of his heart.
"Is there… is there something wrong with me?" she asked, her eyes as brilliant and deep as a Caribbean sea.
"No," he said curtly.
"Then what?" he asked, tone curt, feeling as if he was about to shatter into a million pieces.
"Two adults… night, the distant sound of music. A man and woman. Naked. The one, tall, dark, obviously aroused. The other… longing for him to take her into his arms, so fascinated by him she could just die or… or totally humiliate herself for all eternity," she finished.
He wanted to explain that she was the most erotic, compelling woman he had met since… it seemed like forever, but…
But she was in danger. Mortal danger. And if he gave in to his feelings, he could well endanger her to an even greater degree. He was ready to tell her, explain…
The words simply wouldn't come.
He reached out and clasped her waist, then lifted her over the tile step into the shower, drawing her against his body as he eased her back to the floor, his arousal imprinting itself on every inch of her flesh with which it came into contact. Sound escaped him at last. A groan. He buried his face against her throat, lips against the delicate skin of her neck and shoulder. His fingers slid into the thick wet mass of her hair as his mouth found hers.
Dear God, she was sweet.
Her arms wound around him, slid down the slick wet length of his back, hands shaping his buttocks, pulling him more closely to her. Flesh rubbed against flesh, hot and wet, the steam rising all around them, the beat of the water like a pulsing crescendo. His mouth tore from hers, found her shoulder again, then slid insanely over the rise of her breasts. His lips found her nipple, curved around it, teeth teased, and he heard her gasp, felt the heavy thud of her heart, then her erratic pulse. Her hand was somehow between them, sliding down the length of his chest, finding his sex, curling around it. And her eyes were on his, aqua and huge, as misty as the water, taunting and alluring.