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Lucky's Lady

Published by Bantam on 2018-07-03
Paperback: £7.51
FICTION / Romance / Contemporary

Psychologist Serena Sheridan has come back to the small Louisiana town where she’d been raised—and where her grandfather has suddenly gone missing. Successful, ambitious, beautiful, Serena always found the darker world of the bayous far less predictable—and far more treacherous—than the life she’d chosen.
And for help, she must turn to a man as mysterious and dangerous as the backcountry itself: Lucky Doucet. He’s a man with a past littered with secrets best left concealed—the perfect guide to lead Serena into a world of dazzling seduction, sudden violence, and raw natural beauty. From the exotic French Quarter to the most remote bayou, they would follow a trail of corruption and betrayal to a showdown that would require they trust not only their own deepest instincts for survival—but each other.

(Paperback, 2018-07-03)
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ASIN: 0525486461
ISBN: 9780525486466
EAN: 9780525486466



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Author's Note thousands of years ago dinosaurs ruled the earth. Then came my career. In some ways it does feel as if I've been a working writer since the dawn of time. In other ways it seems not that long ago that I wrote this book. When my editor pointed out to me that Lucky's Lady was originally released in 1992? more than a decade ago'I was stunned. Time does go past in the blink of an eye, marked for a writer by deadlines and stories and the evolution of oneself and one's career. I began my career as a sweet young thing writing romantic comedy for Bantam's now-defunct Loveswept romance line. Not interested in writing the same story over and over, I began dabbling with 'elements of suspense in the romance and eventually proposed Lucky's Lady'my first bona fide romantic suspense novel. This book set me on a new path in the evolution of my work. While its roots were firmly in romance, it was larger in scope than anything I had written before and a grittier story than I had ever told before. Lucky cracked open a door I felt a strong need to go through to see what was on the other side. Each book that followed Lucky strengthened my love for writing suspense and strengthened my faith in

my ability to write suspense, gradually molding me into the writer I am today, writing full-blown, hard-boiled thrillers. Lucky's Lady will always have a special place in my heart for that reason, and also because I simply love the characters, who endure to this day in my memory'and in the memories of the readers who have stayed fans of mine through the various incarnations of my writing life. No booksigning event goes by without several readers telling me how much they loved Lucky, that it was the first book of mine they ever picked up or the one they've reread the most. I hope readers new to this book will feel the same way. In the lineup of my most recent releases'Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust, Dark Horse'Lucky's Lady is definitely a horse of a different color. It is a book that began its life in another genre. A genre I am very proud to say gave me my start in this business. But it is also the book that encouraged me to try something different, and was a bridge from one part of my career to another. Lucky me. Tami Hoag

Praise for the bestsellers of TAMI HOAG DARK HORSE ''A thriller as tightly wound as its heroine? .' .' .' Hoag has created a winning central figure in Elena.' .' .' .' Bottom line: Great ride.' 'People 'This is her best to date? .' .' .' [a] tautly told thriller.' 'Minneapolis Star Tribune 'Hoag proves once again why she is considered a queen of the crime thriller.' 'Charleston Post & Courier ''A tangled web of deceit and double-dealing makes for a fascinating look into the wealthy world of horses juxtaposed with the realistic introspection of one very troubled ex-cop. A definite winner.' 'Booklist ''Anyone who reads suspense novels regularly is acquainted with Hoag's work'or certainly should be. She's one of the most consistently superior suspense and romantic suspense writers on today's bestseller lists. A word of warning to readers: don't think you know whodunit 'til the very end.' 'The Facts (Clute, TX) 'Suspense, shocking violence, and a rip-roaring conclusion? this novel has all the pulse-racing touches that put Tami Hoag books on bestseller lists and crime fans? reading lists.' 'The Advocate Magazine (Baton Rouge, LA) 'Full of intrigue, glitter, and skullduggery? .' .' .' [Hoag] is a master of suspense.' 'Publishers Weekly

'Her best to date, an enjoyable read, and a portent of even better things to come.' 'The Grand Rapids Press ''A complex cerebral puzzle that will keep readers on the edge until all the answers are revealed.' 'The Midwest Book Review 'To say that Tami Hoag is the absolute best at what she does is a bit easy since she is really the only person who does what she does.' .' .' .' It is testament to Hoag's skill that she is able to go beyond being skillful and find the battered hearts in her characters, and capture their beating on the page.' .' .' .' A superb read.' 'Detroit News & Free Press DUST TO DUST 'Compelling and expertly told. Plot lines smolder and ignite as the suspense builds. The result leaves? .' .' .' the reader scorched.' 'USA Today '[This] wintry tale of crime and punishment packs a power? ful thrill. Bottom line: Good cops + bad cops = killer suspense.' 'People (Page-turner of the week, starred review) 'Dust to Dust breathes new life into the old good cop vs. bad cop genre.' .' .' .' A roller-coaster ride of a thriller that will leave fans awaiting the next installment.' 'New York Post 'Sharp dialogue and an unusual plot make this a highly engaging outing for Hoag.' 'Chicago Tribune

'Practice must make perfect after all because Tami Hoag? .' .' .' just keeps getting better.' .' .' .' Hoag not only develops her characters, she also thickens the plot with every chapter, until there is no alternative but to keep turning those pages.' 'The Orlando Sentinel ''As a master of complex plots, Hoag is adept at faking readers into thinking they've figured out what's happened, only to shatter their theories. Dust to Dust continues the tradition.' 'Fort Worth Star-Telegram 'In this well-crafted thriller, Hoag sets a complex plot in motion and gives it a powerful, emotional center.' 'Minneapolis Star Tribune ASHES TO ASHES 'Hoag has more or less taken over the serial killer genre all by herself.' 'Chicago Tribune 'You'll want to lock the doors while you're reading.' .' .' . Hoag does her homework and gets the details right in this creepy story.' .' .' .' Powerful.' 'Minneapolis Star Tribune 'An up-all-night read.' 'The Detroit News '[A] detail-packed thriller? .' .' .' The Silence of the Lambs comes to mind more than once.' 'Entertainment Weekly '[A] compelling? .' .' .' startling story.' 'Chicago Sun-Times

'Hoag has a way of sneaking up on the reader in superior thriller tradition.' .' .' .' She neatly side-steps the graphic crudeness of some of her competitors, while still providing enough surprise twists and stomach-turning carnage to satisfy any heebie-jeebie enthusiast.' 'Publishers Weekly (starred review) ''Absorbing? .' .' .' always interesting? .' .' .' Once again, Hoag doesn't disappoint.' 'New York Post 'Promises to keep readers up reading into the night.' .' .' . A lot of bang for the buck.' 'Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine 'Chilling? .' .' .' Patricia Cornwell wrote thrillers that had readers turning the pages until 3 a.m. Now Hoag is keeping readers up all hours.' 'Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL) ''If 'page turner? is a term too easily used, Ms.' Hoag has restored its legitimacy. Her stories shock us, shake us, take us to the darkest edges of criminal conduct.' 'The Cincinnati Enquirer 'We who know a little about Tami Hoag's novels lock the doors, grab a bowl of popcorn, and settle down for an often unsettling read. With Ashes, we need to look over our shoulders every chapter or so because the evil therein gathers momentum with every move a serial killer makes.' 'The Detroit News 'This is a winning psychological thriller that will attract fans of Thomas Harris.' 'Booklist

THIN DARK LINE ''A Thin Dark Line is chilling, it's atmospheric, it's even romantic; but the novel's best achievement is its making readers constantly interrogate their ideas about justice and revenge, their own presumptions of guilt and innocence.' 'US magazine 'This mystery defies you to put it down, and when you're done you're damn glad you didn't.' 'Detroit News & Free Press 'Hoag deftly demonstrates that the search for truth is rarely straightforward. Important clues are cunningly buried, and the book's tension is as sustained as it is palpable.' 'Chicago Tribune 'With a flair for dialect and regional atmosphere, Hoag captures the essence of the Cajun family and working relationships while injecting suspense and heart-'pounding terror into a violent tangle of justice, innocence, treachery, and public opinion. A thoroughly engrossing read.' 'Booklist 'Hoag has evolved into a fine thriller writer. [She] displays a firm grasp on locale [and] there's plenty of suspense in waiting to see how it will all resolve. Psychopathic villains are common enough, but Hoag has managed to endow hers with a scarred entourage that provides a tragic note.' 'Publishers Weekly 'Hoag is always a good gritty read.' 'Kirkus Reviews 'Hoag writes big, full stories with complex characters and situations. She doesn't shrink from the raw side of crime and the dark side of human nature.' 'The Cincinnati Post

BANTAM TITLES BY TAMI HOAG The Alibi Man Prior Bad Acts Kill the Messenger Dark Horse Dust to Dust Ashes to Ashes A Thin Dark Line Guilty as Sin Night Sins Cry Wolf Dark Paradise Still Waters Lucky's Lady The Trouble with J.J. McKnight in Shining Armor Mismatch Rumor Has It Man of Her Dreams Straight from the Heart The Last White Knight Keeping Company Reilly's Return Magic Sarah's Sin Tempestuous The Restless Heart Heart of Dixie Heart of Gold Taken by Storm Bantam Books are available at special discounts for bulk purchases for sales promotions or corporate use. Special editions, including personalized covers, excerpts of existing books, or books with corporate logos, can be created in large quantities for special needs. For more information, contact Premium Sales at (212) 572-2232 or email

TAMI HOAG LUCKY'S LADY bantam books? '? new york

Sale of this book without a front cover may be unauthorized. If this book is coverless, it may have been reported to the publisher as 'unsold or destroyed? and neither the author nor the publisher may have received payment for it. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. 2018 Bantam Books Mass Market Edition Copyright ? 1992 by Tami Hoag Excerpt from Dark Horse by Tami Hoag copyright ? 2002 by Tami Hoag Excerpt from Kill the Messenger by Tami Hoag copyright ? 2004 by Tami Hoag All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Bantam Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. Bantam Books and the House colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Doubleday, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, in 1992. ISBN 978-'0-'525-'48646-'6 Ebook ISBN 978-'0-'553-'90028-'6 Cover image: ? Mark Owen/Trevillion Images Printed in the United States of America randomhousebooks'.com 2? 4? 6? 8? 9? 7? 5? 3? 1 Bantam Books mass market edition: July 2018

'Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne conna't point.' The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of. 'french proverb

CHAPTER 1 'you want to do what, ch're'? Serena Sheridan took a deep breath and tried again. 'I need to hire a guide to take me into the swamp.' Old Lawrence Gauthier laughed as if at the punch line of some grand joke. His voice rang out through the shop, drowning out the Cajun music coming from the radio on the cluttered shelf behind him as well as the noises of the ? all-'star professional wrestling emanating from the black and white television that sat on the counter. Lawrence sat on a stool behind the counter, his slender legs crossed at the knees, slouching in a posture reminiscent of an egret on a perch'thin shoulders hunched, head low between them. His face was narrow with a prominent nose and eyes like jet beads. His skin was tanned dark and lined like old leather. His laughter ended in a fit of coughing. He reached for his cigarette makings and shook his head. 'What for you wanna do dat, ch're? You goin? after dem crawfish, you'? He laughed again, trying to shake his head and lick the edge of his cigarette paper at the same time. Serena smoothed her hands down the front of the immaculate ? oyster-'colored linen blazer she wore over a matching ? pencil-'slim skirt. She supposed she hardly looked dressed

tami hoag to walk into such a place, much less make the request she had. 'No, I'm not interested in fishing.' She looked around the store, hoping to spot someone else who might be able to help her. It was the middle of the day and Lawrence appeared to be the only person tending the dingy, dimly lit sporting goods store, though some banging noises were coming from behind him, from a room Se? rena knew to be an even dingier workshop where men fussed with their boats, drank beer, swapped outrageous tales, and passed girlie magazines around. She knew because she had once snuck in there as a girl. A headstrong child, she had taken exception to being denied the chance to go in with her grandfather and had stowed away inside his bass boat under a canvas tarp. Her vocabulary had gained a number of choice words that day that their housekeeper had later attempted to wash out of her mouth with soap. 'I need to find my grandfather, Mr.' Gauthier,' she said. 'Apparently he's gone out to his fish camp. I need someone to take me to him.' Lawrence looked at her, narrowing his eyes. Finally he shook a gnarled finger at her. 'Hey, you dat Sheridan girl what left to be a doctor, no'? 'Yes.' 'Yeah, yeah! Mais yeah!' He chuckled, tickled with his powers of recollection. 'You lookin? for Big Giff.' 'Yes, but I need someone to take me. I need a guide.' He shook his head, still smiling at her as if she were a dear but infinitely dimwitted child. 'Non, ch'rie, all what fishin? guides we got 'round here is gone busy now till Monday. Lotta sports coming down to fish these days. 'Sides, ain't nobody crazy 'nough go out to Giff's. Go out there, get their head shot off, them!' He sucked on his little cigarette, holding it between thumb and forefinger in an unconsciously European fash-

lucky's lady 3 ion. Half of it was gone before he exhaled. He reached out with his free hand and patted Serena's cheek. 'Ah, ma jolie fille, ain't nobody crazy 'nough to go out to Big Giff's.' As he said it, a loud bang sounded in the shop ? behind him, followed by a virulent French oath. Lawrence went still with his hand halfway to a tin ashtray on the counter, an unholy light coming into his eyes, a little smile tugging at a corner of his mouth. 'Well, mebbe there's somebody. Jes? how bad you wanna go, ch're'? Serena swallowed the knot of apprehension in her throat, clasping her hands together in front of her like a schoolgirl. Now was not the time for a faint heart. 'It's imperative. I have to go.' He bent his head a little to one side and gave a Gallic shrug, then shouted over his shoulder. ''tienne! Viens ici!' What Serena had braced herself for she wasn't sure, but it certainly wasn't the man who filled the doorway. The impact of his sudden presence had the same effect as being hit with a shock wave'a phenomenon she had heretofore not believed in. Her first impression was of raw power. Broad shoulders, bulging biceps. His chest, bare and gleaming with a sheen of sweat, was wide, and hard muscle beneath taut, tanned skin. The strong V of his torso narrowed to a slender waist, a stomach corrugated with muscle and dusted with black hair that disappeared beneath the ? low-'riding waistband of faded green fatigue pants. She raised her eyes to his face and felt a strange shiver pass over her from head to toe, making her scalp tighten and her fingers tingle. He stared at her from under sleepy lids with large, unblinking amber eyes, eyes like a panther's. His brow was heavy and straight, his nose bold and slightly aquiline. His mouth did the most damage to her nervous system, however. It was wide, with lips so masterfully carved, so incredibly sensuous they would have looked perfect on a

tami hoag ? high-'priced call girl. The effect of that mouth on a face so masculine'all lean planes and hard angles and five-'o'clock? shadow'was blatantly sexual. He regarded her with a subtle disdain that suggested he didn't much care for women other than to bed them? something he appeared to be capable of doing on a more than regular basis. Pulling a cigarette from behind his ear, he planted it in the corner of his mouth, lit it, and said something to Lawrence ? Gauthier in rapid Cajun French, a patois no Parisian could begin to understand. The dialect had nearly been eradicated by the Louisiana school system decades before. And ? although it was making a comeback of sorts due to the latest craze for all things Cajun, it was still not widely spoken. This man spoke it as if it were his primary ? language. Having grown up in Louisiana's French Triangle, Serena had picked up the odd word and phrase, but he spoke too quickly for her to understand anything more than the implication. That was clear enough by Gauthier's reaction? another laughing and coughing fit and a slap on the shoulder for his barbarian friend. Serena felt her cheeks heat with embarrassment as the man sauntered to the end of the counter and leaned a hip against it, all the while assessing her blatantly with those lazy amber eyes. He took a leisurely drag on his cigarette, exhaled, and delivered another line to keep Gauthier in stitches. Serena gave him her coolest glare, defending herself with hauteur. 'Excuse me, but I was raised to believe it is extremely rude to carry on conversations not all those around you can under? stand.' One black brow sketched upward sardonically and the corner of that remarkable mouth curled ever so slightly. He looked like her idea of the devil on steroids. When he spoke to her his tone was a low, throaty purr that stroked her senses

lucky's lady 5 like velvet. 'I told him you don? look like you're sellin? it or givin? it away,' he said, the words rolling out of his mouth with an accent as rich as Cajun gumbo. 'So what could I possibly want with you? I have no interest in am'ricaine ladies.' He drawled the last word with stinging contempt. Se? rena tugged at the lapels of her blazer, straightening the uniform of her station. Her chin went up another notch above the prim collar of her fuchsia silk blouse. 'I can assure you I have no interest in you either.' He pushed himself away from the counter and moved toward her with the arrogant grace of a born athlete. Se? rena stubbornly stood her ground but her heart fluttered in her throat as he stared down at her and raised a hand to smooth it back over her hair. 'That's not what your eyes are tellin? me, ch're catin.' Serena dragged in a ragged breath and held it, feeling as if she were going to explode from sheer fury. She slapped his hand away and took a step back from him. 'I didn't come here to be insulted or manhandled. I came here to hire a guide, Mister'? 'Doucet,' he supplied. ''tienne Doucet. Folks call me Lucky.' Serena vaguely remembered a Lucky Doucet from high school. He'd been several classes ahead of her, an athlete, a loner with a reputation as a bad boy. The girls whose main interest in school had been guys had swooned at the mere mention of his name. Serena's interests had lain elsewhere. She looked at him now and thought whatever reputation he had sown back then he had certainly cultivated since. He looked like the incarnation of the word trouble. She had to be half mad to even consider hiring him. But then she thought of Gifford. She had to see him, had to do what she could to find out what had made him leave Chanson du Terre, had to do her best to try to convince him to come

tami hoag home. As tough as Gifford Sheridan liked to pretend he was, he was still a ? seventy-'eight-'year-'old man with a heart condition. 'I'm Serena Sheridan,' she said in her most businesslike tone. Lucky Doucet blinked at her. A muscle tensed, then loosened in his jaw. 'I know who you are,' he said, an oddly defensive note in his voice. Serena dismissed it as unimportant. 'I came here to hire a guide, Mr.' Doucet. Gifford Sheridan is my grandfather. I need someone to take me out to his cabin. Mr.' Gauthier has informed me that all the more reputable guides are booked up for the weekend, which apparently leaves you. Are you interested in the job or not'? Lucky moved back to lean negligently against the counter again. Behind him, Lawrence had switched off his wrestling program in favor of live entertainment. In the background Iry LeJeune sang 'La Jolie Blonde? in crackling French over the radio. The pretty blonde. How apropos. He took a deep pull on his cigarette, sucking the smoke into the very corners of his lungs, as if it might purge the feelings shaking loose and stirring inside him. When he had stepped from the back room and seen her he had felt as if he'd taken a vicious blow to the solar plexus. Shelby. The shock had dredged up memories and emotions like mud and dead vines churning up from the bayou in the wake of an outboard motor'pain, hate, fear all swirling furiously inside him. The pain and hate were old companions. The fear was for the control he felt slipping, sliding through his grasp like a wet rope. The feelings assaulted him still, even though he told himself this wasn't the woman from his past, but her sister, someone he had never had any contact with. Nor did he want to. They were twins, after all, maybe not perfectly identical, but cut from the same cloth. He stared at the woman before him, trying to set all per-

lucky's lady 7 sonal feelings aside to concentrate on only the physical aspects of her. It shouldn't have been difficult to do; she was beautiful. From the immaculate state of her honey-'colored? hair in its smooth French twist to the tips of her beige pumps, she radiated class. He swore, throwing his cigarette to the battered wood floor and grinding it out with the toe of his boot. Without looking, he reached behind the counter and pulled out a bottle of Jack Daniel's, helping himself to a generous swig. Lawrence said nothing, but frowned and glanced away, tilting his head in silent reproof. Resenting the twinge of guilt pinching him somewhere in the vicinity of where his conscience had once resided, Lucky put the bottle back. Damn. He damned Gifford Sheridan for having granddaughters that looked like heaven on earth. He damned women in general and himself in particular. If he had a lick of sense he would send Miss Serena packing. He would go about his own business and let the Sheridans do what they would. That was the kind of life he had chosen to live, solitary, and yet other lives kept drifting into his. He didn't want to be touched. He didn't need the trouble he knew was brewing on the Sheridan plantation, Chanson du Terre, didn't need the reminder of past pain. But Giff had dragged him into it to a certain extent already and there was too much riding on the situation for him to decline playing so slight a role in the drama. He cursed himself for caring. He had thought himself beyond it, thought the capacity to care had been burned out of him by the acidic quality of his experiences. But it was still there, which meant he had to find the strength to deal with it. God help him. Serena gave him one last scathing glare and turned on her slim, expensive heel, heading for the street entrance of

tami hoag the store. Lucky swore under his breath and went after her, catching her by the arm. 'Where you goin', sugar? I never said I wouldn't take you.' She looked pointedly at the big dirty hand circling her upper arm, then turned that defiant gaze up to his face. 'Maybe I won't take you, Mr.' Doucet.' 'The way I see it, you don't have much of a choice. Ain't nobody else gonna take you out to Giff's.' He laughed without humor. 'Ain't nobody else crazy enough.' 'But you are'? He smiled like a crocodile and leaned down toward her until his mouth hovered only a few inches above her lips. 'That's right,' he whispered. 'I'm over the edge. I might do anything. Ask anyone 'round this town here. They'll all tell you the same thing'Il n'a pas rien il va pas faire. There's nothing he won't do. That Lucky Doucet, he's one bad crazy son, him.' 'Well, I'm a psychologist,' she said with a 'saccharine-? sweet smile. 'So we ought to get along just peachy, shouldn't we'? He let go of her arm as if she had just told him she had leprosy. The expression of smug male arrogance abruptly disappeared, and his face became blank and unreadable. He turned and strode for a side door that stood open and led directly onto a dock. Serena stood a moment, trying to gather some strength, her gaze on Lucky Doucet's broad bare back as he walked away. She could feel old Lawrence staring at her, but she didn't move. She'd never had such a? .' .' . primal reaction to a man. She was a sophisticated, educated woman, a woman who prided herself on her ability to maintain control in every situation. But that foundation of control was trembling in the wake of Lucky Doucet, and she didn't like it. He was rude and arrogant and? .' .' . The other words that

lucky's lady 9 came to mind were far too flattering. What difference did it make what he looked like? He was a Neanderthal. He was also her only hope of reaching Giff. And she had to reach him. Someone had to find out what was going on. Shelby claimed she hadn't a clue as to why Gifford had suddenly deserted the plantation in favor of living out in the swamp. It might have been nothing more than a matter of Giff getting fed up with having Shelby and her family under? foot while their new house was under construction, but it might have been something more. It wasn't like him to leave during a busy time of year, simply turning the reins of the sugarcane plantation over to his manager. Shelby had peevishly suggested Gifford was getting senile. Serena couldn't imagine her grandfather as anything other than sharp as a tack, but then, she hadn't actually seen him in a while. Her practice in Charleston kept her too busy for many visits home. She had been looking forward to this one, looking forward to simply enjoying her ancestral home in all its springtime glory. Then Shelby had greeted her at the door with news of Gifford's defection to the swamp. He'd been out there two weeks. Two weeks with no word, and Shelby had done nothing about it except complain. 'What did you expect me to do'? she had asked. 'Go out there after him? I have two children to raise and a real estate business to manage and a husband, and I'm the chairperson of the Junior League drive for canned goods for the starving peasants of Guatemala. I have responsibilities, Se? rena! I can't just jump in a boat and go out there! Not that he would ever listen to a word I have to say anyway. And you can't expect Mason to go out there. You know how beastly Gifford is to him. I'm just at my wit's end trying to deal with him. You're the psychologist. You go out there and talk some sense into that hard head of his.'

10 tami hoag Go out there. Into the swamp. Serena's blood had run cold at the suggestion. It ran cold now at the thought. But she was just angry enough and stubborn enough to get past her fear for the moment. She had stormed from the house to go in search of a guide without even bothering to change her clothes. She wouldn't allow herself to dwell on her fear. She had to see her grandfather and there was only one way to do that. She had to go out into the one place she thought of as hell on earth, and the only man available to take her had just walked away. Serena rushed after Lucky Doucet, struggling to hurry in her narrow skirt and shoes that had not been intended for walking on rough planking. The midday sun was blinding as she stepped out onto the dock. The stench of dirty water and gasoline hung in the thick, still air. Lucky stood at the open door to the workshop. 'We haven't discussed your fee,' Serena said, ignoring the possibility that he had changed his mind about taking her. She struggled for an even breath as she faced his chest. He looked down his nose at her with an expression that suggested she had just insulted his mother. 'I have no need of your money,' he said contemptuously. Serena rolled her eyes and lifted her hands in a gesture of exasperated surrender. 'Pardon me for thinking you might like an honest wage for an honest job. How bourgeois of me.' He ignored her, bending to pick up a heavy cardboard box full of oily black motor parts. He lifted it as though it weighed no more than a kitten and set it on a workbench to sort through it. His attitude was one of dismissal and irritating in the extreme. 'Why are you making this so difficult'? Serena asked. He turned his head and gave her a nasty, sardonic smile. 'Because I'm a difficult kind of guy. I thought you might have figured that out by now. You're an intelligent woman.'

lucky's lady 11 'Frankly, I'm amazed you would credit a woman with having a brain. You strike me as the sort of man who sees women as being useful for only one purpose.' 'I said you were intelligent, not useful. I won't know how useful you are until I have you naked beneath me.' Heat flared through Serena like a flash fire. She attributed it to anger. Certainly it had nothing to do with the sudden image of lying tangled in the sheets with this barbarian. She crossed her arms in front of her defensively and made a show of looking all around them before returning her belligerent gaze to Lucky. 'Pardon me, I was just checking to see if I had somehow been transported back into the Stone Age. Are you proposing to hit me over the head with a dinosaur bone and drag me back to your cave, Conan'? He raised a warning finger, his brows drawing together ominously over glittering eyes. 'You got a mouth on you, ch're.' He shuffled toward her, backing her up against the door frame. He braced his forearms on the wood above her head and leaned down close. His breath was warm against her cheek and scented with the smoky taint of tobacco and whiskey. 'I have never forced a woman,' Lucky said, his voice low and soft, the molten gold of his eyes burning into Serena's. 'I never have to.' She was a spoiled society bitch and he wanted nothing to do with her. He'd been burned badly enough to know better. Dieu, he'd learned his first lesson at the hands of her twin! To get that close again was to give in entirely to the demons of insanity. Still, desire ribboned through him. The subtle, expensive scent of her perfume lured him closer. He dropped his head down near the curve of her shoulder and battled the urge to nuzzle the tender spot just below her ear and above the prim ? stand-'up collar of her dark pink blouse.

12 tami hoag 'I'm hiring you as a guide,' she said through her teeth, her voice trembling with rage or desire or both. 'Not for stud service.' Lucky mentally thanked her for breaking the spell. He stepped back, cocking one hip and hooking a thumb in the waistband of his pants. He gave her a devilish grin. 'Why not, angel? I'd give you the ride of your life.' She glared at him in utter disgust and walked away to stand at the edge of the dock, her slender back rigid. He had no doubt irreparably offended her ladylike sensibilities, he thought. Fine. That was exactly what he wanted. The more emotional distance he put between himself and a woman like Serena Sheridan, the better. His mother would have peeled the hide off him for talking that way to a woman, but this was more than just a matter of manners, it was a matter of survival. He scooped up the box of motor parts and started down the pier with it, calling over his shoulder as he went. 'So, you comin', ch're, or what? I don't have all day.' Serena turned and stared in disbelief as he headed down the worn dock. She noticed for the first time that his hair was nearly as long as hers, tied in a short queue at the back of his thick neck with a length of leather boot lace. A pirate. That was what he reminded her of'in looks and attitude. 'You're leaving now'? she said, once again rushing to catch up with him. He didn't answer her. It was perfectly obvious he meant to leave. Serena cursed Lucky Doucet and spike heels in the same breath as she picked up her pace. Talk about your ? grade-'A bastards, this guy took the prize. And she wanted to be the one to personally pin the medal on him. If they were in Charleston, never in a million years would she have put up with being treated the way he was treating her. She had too much sense and ? self-'respect to fall for that tame? the-'rogue-'male syndrome. But they weren't in Charleston.

lucky's lady 13 They were in South Louisiana, at the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp, some of the wildest, most remote swampland in the United States. And Lucky Doucet wasn't some button-? down executive or construction worker she could bring to heel with a cool look. He was a breed unto himself and only marginally more civilized than the bayou country around them. Abruptly, the heel of one of her pumps caught between planks in the dock and gave way, nearly pitching Serena headfirst off the pier and into the oily water. She swore aloud as she stumbled awkwardly, hampered by the narrow skirt around her knees, just managing to catch her balance before it was too late. Lucky stopped and turned toward her with a look of mock affront. 'Why, Miz Serena, such language! What will the ladies at the Junior League think'? She narrowed her eyes and snarled at him as she hopped on her ruined shoe and pulled the other one off. The instant she put her foot down, she ran a sliver into it, but she refused to cry out or even acknowledge the pain. She limped up to Lucky, struggling to maintain some semblance of dignity. 'I'm not prepared to leave just now, Mr.' Doucet,' she said primly. 'I was thinking more along the lines of tomorrow morning.' He shrugged without the least show of concern. A brilliant white grin split his features. 'Well, that's too bad, sugar, 'cause if you're leavin? with me, you're leavin? now.'

CHAPTER 2 it was a 'no-'win situation. if she stood her ground, she lost her ride. If she gave in, it was another blow to her pride and another peg up for Mr.' Macho's over? inflated ego. Serena took a slow, deep breath of air that was as dense as steam and tasted metallic and bitter. Maintaining as much of her dignity as she could, she lifted her slim nose and gave Lucky a long, cool look. One corner of his lush mouth curled like the end of a cat's tail. 'What'sa matter, ch're? You'd rather give orders than take them? Well, I'm not your hired boy. You want a ride, then you climb in the boat. You wanna boss somebody around, you can take a hike.' Serena was certain she could actually feel her temper start to boil the blood in her veins. She clenched her jaw and fought a valiant battle to keep the lid on when all she wanted to do was tell Lucky Doucet to take a long walk off a short pier. Despite her name, her apparent serenity was little more than a shield, a defense mechanism, protective camouflage. All her life she'd had to struggle with strong doses of Sheridan temper and stubbornness. Now she wrestled one into submission with the other. The man was doing

lucky's lady 15 his best to make her angry, so she stubbornly refused to lose her temper. 'You are a remarkably obnoxious man, Mr.' Doucet,' she observed in the calmest of voices, as if she were commenting on nothing more interesting than the weather. 'I always try to excel.' 'How admirable.' 'So are you comin''? He set his box down on the dock and sat beside it, dangling his long legs off the pier. 'I'll need to stop by Chanson du Terre for a few things. You wouldn't have any objection to that, would you'? He gave her a flat look. Serena motioned impatiently to the suit she was wearing. 'You don't really expect me to travel out into the swamp dressed this way, do you'? He scowled and grumbled as he lowered himself into his boat. 'Non. Come on, then. I been here too long already. Just look at the trouble I got myself into, havin? to haul you around.' Serena moved to the edge of the dock and looked down. It was then that the full folly of what she was about to do hit her. Lucky's boat was no more than twelve feet in length, slender as a pea pod, and it looked about as stable as a floating leaf. Sitting in it would put her no more than an arm's length from the black water of the bayou. Fear rose up in her throat and wedged there like a tennis ball. What was the matter with her? Had she completely lost her mind? She was about to put her life in the hands of a man she wouldn't sit next to on a bus and trust him to take her into the deep swamp in a boat that looked about as seaworthy as her broken shoe. The swamp. Where anything could happen. Where people could get lost and never be found. A chill raced over her flesh, settling into her arms and legs in trembling pools. She clenched her jaw and held her

16 tami hoag breath, forgetting every relaxation technique she taught her own patients. It had been too long since she'd been assaulted by this fear. The strength of it took her by surprise. It swelled and shook her, crowding at the back of her throat like a scream demanding release. Lucky stood in the pirogue, watching her, annoyed by her dawdling. Then the color drained out of her face and his annoyance was replaced by something he refused to name. Serena Sheridan had come across as a lady who could handle herself in most situations. She had stood up to him better than most men did. Now she looked like a piece of porcelain about to crack from some fierce internal pressure. Something deep inside him responded to that, commiserated with it. He ground his teeth, resenting the feeling and giving in to it at the same time. As hardened as he liked to think he was, he couldn't just stand there and watch her fall apart. He told himself it was because he didn't want to have to deal with a woman in hysterics. Besides, he had already decided the safest thing for him was to keep her half mad at him all the time. A man stayed wary of a snake poised to strike; it was the ones that appeared to be docile and dozing in the sun that were dangerous. 'You don? like my boat, ch're'? he drawled, an unmistakable note of challenge in his voice. 'A'um'? Serena pulled herself out of her trance with difficulty, trying to focus not on her memory but on the boat and the man standing in it leaning indolently against a long ? push-'pole. 'It's not exactly what I had in mind. Don't you have something a little? .' .' . bigger'? 'Like a yacht'? he asked sarcastically. 'This ain't Saks Fifth Avenue, sugar. I don't have a selection for you to try on for size. Now, are you gonna get on down here or do I get to spend the rest of the day lookin? up your skirt'? A welcome surge of reckless anger warmed the chill that

lucky's lady 17 had shaken Serena from within. She narrowed her eyes as she pressed her knees together demurely and pulled her slim skirt tightly around them. Clutching her purse and shoe in one hand, she lowered herself awkwardly to the rough planks of the dock, dropping her legs over the edge and grimacing as she felt her pantyhose run all the way down the back of one leg. She looked down at the pirogue bobbing gently on the oily water and a second wave of apprehension rose up to her tonsils. She hadn't gone out on the bayou in a boat of any kind in fifteen years. She doubted she would have felt safe on the Queen Elizabeth II, let alone this simple shell of cypress planking. Still, why couldn't he at least have had a nice big bass boat with a motor on it? Nobody used pirogues anymore? .' .' . except Lucky Doucet. 'My pirogue is all the boat I need,' Lucky said as he reached up for her. 'What'd you think'that I'd go around in a cabin cruiser on the off chance I might have to give some belle a ride somewhere she hadn't oughta be going in the first place'? Serena flashed him a glare. 'No. I was just hoping against hope that you weren't as uncivilized as you appear to be.' He laughed as his big hands closed around her slender waist. She gave a little squeal of protest as he lifted her down into the boat. The pirogue rocked beneath his spread feet and she sacrificed pride for panic, dropping her shoe and purse and grabbing on to Lucky's biceps for support. For an instant she clung to him as if he were the only thing keeping her from falling into the gaping jaws of hell. Her breasts pressed against his upper rib cage, her belly arched into his groin as his big hands splayed across the small of her back, holding her close. His thighs were as solid as oak trees against hers. A shiver of primitive awareness shimmied down her back as she looked up at him. He flashed her a smile that would have given the devil

18 tami hoag goose bumps. 'Oh, I'm every bit as uncivilized as I look.' His voice dropped to that throaty purr that set all her nerve endings humming like tuning forks. 'You gonna try to do somethin? 'bout that, ch're? You gonna try to domesticate me'? The suggestion elicited an involuntary trill of excitement inside her. It was like a starburst of sensation deep in her belly, and Serena cursed it for the foolishness she knew it was. Any woman who took on the task of domesticating Lucky Doucet was just asking for trouble. Still, she couldn't seem to quell the feeling as she looked up at him, at his hard, ? beard-'shadowed jaw and that decadent mouth. She steeled herself against it, pushing herself back from him. He let her put an inch of space between them, but only after letting her know he could have held her there all day if he'd been of a mind to. 'Domesticate you'? Serena said derisively, arching a delicate brow. 'Couldn't I just have you neutered'? 'No need.' He gave her a little push that landed her on the plank seat of the pirogue with an unceremonious thump, and turned to get his box of motor parts. 'I wouldn't touch you with a ? ten-'foot pole, lady.' 'That's the first good news I've had today,' Serena grumbled, ignoring the twinge of disappointment that nipped her feminine ego. Ignoring, too, the obvious comparison to be made between Lucky Doucet and a 'ten-'foot pole. She fanned herself with her hand, feeling suddenly flushed, and watched as Lucky lifted his box off the dock, back muscles bunching and sliding beneath his taut, dark skin. He settled the box in the bow of the boat, then moved gracefully toward the stern, stepping over the jig and over the seat, carelessly rocking the tippy pirogue. Serena's fingers wrapped around the edge of the seat like C clamps, and her gaze drifted longingly down the pier to a shiny aluminum boat. It seemed huge and luxurious compared to the homemade pirogue. A fat man wearing a black

lucky's lady 19 New Orleans Saints cap and a plaid shirt with the sleeves cut off sat at the back of it, jerking the rope on the outboard motor. 'You might think about joining the twentieth century sometime soon,' Serena said, shooting Lucky a sweet smile. 'People use motors nowadays.' Lucky stared at the gas and oil bleeding into the water from the outboard as the fat man yanked on the rope. He frowned, brows pulling low over his eyes as he took up his ? push-'pole. 'Not me.' He poled the pirogue away from the dock and let the nose turn south. Serena jerked around, looking up at him over her shoulder with alarm. 'This isn't the way to Chanson du Terre or Gifford's fish camp. Just where do you think you're taking me, Mr.' Doucet'? Lucky scowled at her. 'I got other things to do besides haul your pretty face up and down the bayou.' It was apparently all the answer he was going to give her. He had set his face in an expression that declared the subject closed, and Serena decided not to push her luck. After all, he wasn't running a taxi service. She had no claim on his time. Considering his attitude, it was a wonder he had agreed to take her at all. She faced forward and tried to concentrate on the scenery instead of the sinuous feel of the boat sliding through the dark water. They were at the south edge of town, and the only buildings along the banks of the bayou were the occasional bait shop and a couple of dilapidated 'tar-'paper shacks on stilts with boathouses made of rusting corrugated metal. A spindly legged blue heron stood among the cattails near the bank, watching them pass. Serena focused on it as if it were the subject of a painting, its graceful form set against a backdrop of ? orange-'blossomed trumpet creeper

20 tami hoag and clusters of dark green ferns. Rising in the background, hackberry trees reached their arms up to a 'china-'blue sky and live oak dripped their tattered banners of dusty gray Spanish moss. Their destination eventually became clear as Lucky poled toward the bank and a wharf hung with barnacle-'encrusted? tires to buffer its edge. The structure that rose up on stilts some distance behind it was as big as a barn, an unremarkable clapboard building with peeling white paint and a sign hanging above the gallery that spelled out mosquito ? mouton's in ? two-'foot-'high red letters. Rusted tin signs advertising various brands of beer were nailed all along the side of the building above a long row of screened windows. Even though it was only the middle of the day, cars were parked on the ? crushed-'shell lot and Zydeco music drifted out through the double screen doors in swells of sound accented by occasional shouts and laughter. 'A bar'? Serena questioned imperiously. She looked up at Lucky, incredulous, as he brought the boat alongside the dock. 'This is where you had to stop to delay us? A bar'? 'I've got some business here,' he said. 'It won't take long. You wait in the boat.' 'Wait in the''? She broke off, watching in disbelief as he hauled himself onto the dock and headed for the bar without looking back. 'Swell.' God only knew what his business was or how long it would take. In the meantime she could sit and rot in his stupid boat. The sun beat down on her, its heat magnified by the humidity. She could feel her linen suit wilting over her frame like an abused orchid. Not that it was going to be salvageable after today anyway, she thought, grimacing at the greasy handprint on the sleeve of her jacket. She cursed her temper for getting her into this. If she hadn't let Shelby goad her into rushing right out to find a guide? .' .' . If she hadn't let old feelings of inadequacy push

lucky's lady 21 her? .' .' . If she had taken the time to think the situation through in a calm and rational manner, as she would have back in Charleston? .' .' . This was what coming home could do to a person. She had an established persona back in Charleston, an image she had fashioned for herself among acquaintances she had chosen. But this was home, and the minute she came back here, she became Gifford Sheridan's granddaughter, Shelby Sheridan's twin, the former captain of the high school debate team; old feelings and old patterns of behavior resurrected themselves like ghosts, peeling away the veneer of adulthood like a pecan husk. It was part of the reason she stayed away. She liked who she was in Charleston'a professional woman in control of her life. Here she never felt in control. The very atmosphere wrested control away from her and left her feeling unsettled and uncertain. This place, Mosquito Mouton's, was a perfect example. It was the most notorious place in the parish. She had been raised to believe it was frequented by hooligans and white trash, and no decent girl would come within shouting distance of it. Sitting in Lucky Doucet's pirogue, she had to quell the urge to look around for anyone who might recognize her. She felt as if she were a teenager cutting class for the first time. Crossing her arms in front of her, she heaved a sigh, closed her eyes, and thought of her cool, pretty apartment back in Charleston. It was done in soft colors and feminine patterns and had a view of the water. There was a garden in the courtyard, and it was a long, long way from the swamp and Lucky Doucet. The instant the screen door banged shut behind him, heads turned in Lucky's direction.

22 tami hoag The place was about half full and would be bursting at the seams by sundown. Mouton's was the hub of trouble. There was gambling in the back and girls who might do anything for a few bucks or just for the hell of it. From here a man could find his way to a dogfight or a fistfight or a whorehouse or any number of dens of iniquity that were no longer supposed to exist in the civilized South. It was the hangout of poachers and men whose backgrounds were filled with more shadows than the swamp. And even among them, Lucky Doucet stood out as a remarkably dangerous sort of man. The men sized him up warily, the women covetously, but no one approached him. The bartender, a portly man with a dense, 'close-'cropped ? salt-'and-'pepper beard, groaned and rolled his eyes like a man in pain. He brought up the rag he was wiping the bar with and patted it against his double chins like an old matron trying to ward off a fainting spell. 'Jesus, Lucky, I don? want no trouble in here,' he wailed, waddling toward Lucky's end of the bar. His little sausage fingers knotted together around the towel in a gesture of supplication. 'I just barely got the place patched up from the las? time.' Lucky shrugged expansively, blinking innocence. 'Trouble? Me cause you trouble, Skeeter? Hell, I just came in for a drink. Give me a shot and a Jax ? long-'neck.' Muttering prayers, Skeeter moved to do his bidding, sweat beading on his bald spot like water on a bowling ball. Lucky's gaze homed in on Pou Perret, a little muskrat with a pockmarked face and a thin, droopy mustache. He was sitting at the far end of the bar, deep in conversation with a local cockfight referee. Picking up his beer bottle by the neck, Lucky sauntered down to the end of the bar and tapped the referee on the shoulder. 'Hey, pal, I think I hear your mother callin'.' The man took one look at Lucky and vacated his seat,

lucky's lady 23 shooting Perret a nervous glance as he moved away into the smokier regions of the bar. Sipping his beer, Lucky eased himself onto the stool and hooked the heels of his boots over the chrome rung. 'How's tricks, Pou? Where's Willis? In the back cheatin? at bourr'? You out here keepin? watch or somethin', little weasel'? Perret scowled at him and shrunk away to the far side of his stool like a dog afraid of getting kicked. He muttered an obscene suggestion half under his breath. 'That's anatomically impossible, mon ami,' Lucky said, taking another sip of his beer. 'See the things you might have learned if you'd stayed in school past the sixth grade? All this time you've probably been wearin? yourself out trying to do that very thing you suggested to me.' He chuckled at Perret's comically offended expression as he helped himself to a pack of cigarettes lying on the bar. He lit one up and took a leisurely drag. Exhaling a stream of smoke, he shrugged and grinned shrewdly. '''Course, mebbe Willis, he helps you out with that, eh'? Perret narrowed his droopy eyes to slits. 'You 'bastard.' Lucky's expression went dangerously still. His smile didn't waver, but it took on a quality that would have made even fools reconsider the wisdom of getting this close to him. 'You say that in front of my maman, I'll cut your tongue out, cher,' he said in a silky voice. 'My folks are respectable people, you know.' 'Yeah,' Perret admitted grudgingly, bobbing his head down between his bony shoulders like a vulture. He scratched his chest through his dirty black T-shirt, sniffed, and took another stab at belligerence. 'How'd they ever end up with the like of you'? Lucky's eyes gleamed in the dim light as he looked straight into Perret's ferret face. 'I'm a changeling, don'tcha know. Straight up from hell.'

24 tami hoag Perret shifted uneasily on his seat, superstition shining in his dark eyes like a fever. He lifted a hand to the dime he wore on a string around his neck. He snatched his cigarettes out of Lucky's reach and shook one out for himself, sliding a glance at Lucky out the corner of his eye. 'What you want, Doucet'? Lucky took his time answering. He stood and shoved the barstool out of his way so he could lean lazily against the bar. He set his cigarette in an ashtray and took another long swallow of his beer before turning to look at Perret again. 'You been sniffin? 'round the wrong part of the swamp this last couple of weeks, louse,' he said quietly. 'Me, I think it might be better for your health if you go raidin? elsewhere.' Perret made a face and shrugged off the warning. 'It's a free country. You don? own the swamp, Doucet.' Lucky arched a brow. 'No? Well, I own this knife, don't I'? he said, sliding the hunting knife from its sheath. He grabbed a fistful of Perret's T-shirt and leaned over until Perret nearly fell off his stool. The wide blade gleamed just inches from the man's nose. 'And I can cut you up into 'gator bait with it, can't I'? Conversations around them died abruptly. On the other side of the bar, Skeeter Mouton whimpered and crossed himself, sending up a prayer for the survival of his establishment. Clifton Chenier's accordion sang out from the speakers of the jukebox, sounding as raucous and out of place as a reggae band in church. 'Come on, Lucky, don? go cuttin? him up in here,' Skeeter pleaded. 'I won? never get all the blood out the floor!' Perret turned gray and swallowed as if he were choking on a rock, his dark eyes darting from Lucky's face to the knife and back. There was a commotion at the back of the room as a door burst open and a group of men emerged, their expressions

lucky's lady 25 ranging from avid interest to livid anger. At the front of the pack was Mean Gene Willis. Willis had been a roughneck down in the Gulf and a convict in the Angola penitentiary. He was a ? good-'sized man with fists as big as country hams and a face like a side of beef. He made a beeline for Lucky with murder in his eyes. Lucky let go of Perret, snatched up his untouched whiskey, and flung it into Willis's face. The big man howled and lunged blindly for Lucky, who met his advance with a boot to Willis's beer gut. Perret took advantage of the distraction to grab Lucky's beer bottle and break it on the edge of the bar. As he swung it in an arch for Lucky's head, a gun went off. Women screamed. Someone kicked out the plug on the jukebox. There was an instant of deafening silence, then a man's voice rang out. 'That's enough! Y'all stop it or I swear I'll shoot somebody and call it in the line of duty.' Perret dropped his broken bottle and slinked away like the rat he was. Willis lay groaning on the floor, holding his stomach. Lucky stepped back casually and sheathed his knife, his gaze drifting over the uniformed agent who had hurried out of the ? back-'room card game with Willis. He had gone to school with Perry Davis and had disliked him since kindergarten. Davis was a man of fair, ? baby-'faced looks and an annoying air of ? self-'importance that was only more grating in adulthood, considering the fact that he was lousy at his job. Lucky picked up his cigarette from the ashtray on the bar and took a slow pull on it. 'Is this the kind of thing they were referring to when they named it the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, Agent Davis? You playing bourr? in a roadhouse'? Davis gave him a cold look. 'What I'm doing here is none of your business, Doucet.'

26 tami hoag 'No? A respectable employee of the government gam? blin? on taxpayer's time? That's none of my business'? 'What do you care? I doubt you pay taxes and you sure as hell aren't respectable.' Lucky chuckled. 'That's right, cher, I'm not. You'd do well to remember that.' 'Are you threatening me, Doucet'? 'Who, me? I don't make threats.' His gaze took on the cold, hard look of polished brass, and his voice dropped a notch. 'I don't have to.' A muscle worked nervously in Davis's jaw. 'I'm not afraid of you, Lucky.' Lucky smiled. 'Well then, I guess it's not true what folks say about you, is it? You're every bit as dumb as you look.' Davis's pale complexion turned blotchy red, but he said nothing. He holstered his gun and turned away to shoo the bar's patrons back to whatever they had been doing before the ruckus. Willis struggled to his feet. Doubled over with an arm across his belly, he glared at Lucky. 'I'll get you, you coonass son of a bitch. You wait 'n? see.' Lucky dropped his cigarette and ground it out on the floor with his boot. 'Yeah, I'll be losin? sleep over that, I will,' he drawled sardonically. 'Stay out of my swamp, Willis.' He turned toward the door to make his exit and his heart jolted hard in his chest. Serena Sheridan was standing right in front of him with her little calfskin purse clutched to her chest, her eyes wide and her pretty mouth hanging open in shock. In her prim suit and 'slicked-'back hairdo, she looked like a schoolmarm who'd just gotten her first eyeful of a naked man. Lucky swore under his breath. He didn't need any of this. He would have been just as happy never to have to tangle with the likes of Gene Willis and Pou Perret. He

lucky's lady 27 sure as hell had never asked to 'baby'sit Serena Sheridan. This all came back to the other lives that kept insisting on crossing paths with his, and it was damned annoying. He took Serena by the arm and ushered her toward the door. 'You've got a real knack for showing up in places you hadn't oughta be, don't you'? Serena looked up at him but said nothing. She suddenly felt way out of her depth. Anyone with half a brain would have spotted Lucky Doucet for a tough customer, but she hadn't quite realized just how tough, just how dangerous he might be. Somehow, the fact that he knew her grandfather had diluted that sense of danger, but what she'd just witnessed had brought it all into sharp focus. He was a poacher, a thief. He was a man who threatened people with knives and thumbed his nose at authority. He had practically laughed in the face of the game warden. God only knew what other laws he might break without compunction. 'Serena? Serena Sheridan'? Perry Davis stepped in front of them with a questioning look that clearly said he couldn't have been more surprised to see her there on the arm of a gargoyle. 'Is this man bothering you'? Serena's gaze darted from him to Lucky. This was her chance. This was the part in the movie where everyone yelled at the screen for the heroine to cut and run. But she couldn't seem to find her voice, and then the opportunity was lost. 'Take off, Davis,' Lucky said on a growl. 'The lady is with me.' Davis looked anything but convinced, but when Serena made no move to object, he shrugged and turned away. 'You know that guy'? Lucky asked, steering her toward the door again. 'He's a friend of the family.'

28 tami hoag Lucky sniffed. 'You gotta choose a better class of friends, sugar.' Serena almost burst out laughing. She shook her head and marveled at the whole scene. What the hell was she doing here? Why wasn't she taking the opportunity to get away from him? 'I thought I told you to wait in the boat,' he grumbled irritably, dodging her gaze. 'I was waiting in the boat until a truckload of roughnecks pulled up. Then it became a matter of the lesser of two evils. I decided the riffraff in here was probably safer than the riffraff out there.' 'And now you're not so sure'? He opened the door for her and she stepped out onto the gallery to a chorus of wolf whistles and crude ? come-'on lines. Closing her eyes, she sighed a ? long-'suffering sigh and rubbed her temples. This just wasn't her day. The screen door banged behind her and the harassment ceased abruptly as Lucky walked up beside her and put an arm around her waist. It was a possessive gesture, a protective one, not anything sexually threatening. In fact, it was almost comforting. Serena looked up at him, surprised. He was scowling at the ? oil-'rig workers assembled on the wide porch. 'Don? they teach you respect for ladies where you boys come from'? he asked in that ? silky-'soft tone that raised the hair on the back of Serena's neck. No one said anything. The men who worked the oil rigs were a rough breed. They wouldn't back down from a fight, but they didn't appear ready to pick one either. They were probably exhibiting better judgment than she was, Serena thought. Perhaps they had met Lucky and his friend Mr. Knife before. They were probably all sitting there wondering what she was doing with the most dangerous man in South Louisiana.

lucky's lady 29 She lifted her chin a notch and drew together the tattered remains of her composure as Lucky guided her down the steps and across the parking lot. 'I'd like to go home now, if you don't mind,' she said. 'I can see you're a busy man, Mr.' Doucet. I can make other arrangements to get to Gifford's tomorrow.' Lucky stopped and jammed his hands at the waistband of his pants. He looked out at the bayou, squinting into the afternoon sun, and exhaled a long breath through his teeth. This was stupid. He wanted to be rid of her, didn't he? He wanted her to think the worst of him, didn't he? He should have been happy that she was ready to give up, but he wasn't. Dieu, what a masochist he was! Why should he care that a woman like Serena Sheridan looked at him with wary contempt? The feeling was reciprocated a hundred and ten percent. He couldn't look at her without feeling? .' .' . What? Hot. But that was just an instinctive response. Of course he wanted her. Any man with feeling below the waist would want her. She was beautiful in the cool, ethereal way of a goddess. Of course it drove him wild. Of course he wanted to bury himself between those long, sleek legs. Of course he wanted to stroke and kiss those high, proud breasts. But he knew too well that what lay under those pretty breasts of hers could be pure evil. Anger. That was what he really felt, he told himself. Anger. Resentment. She was her sister's twin. She was Shelby with a doctorate in psychology'Dieu, what a nightmare! She was also Giff Sheridan's granddaughter. And he had made Giff a promise. The reminder made him sigh again and mutter an oath in French. 'Look,' he said quietly. 'I don? know what all you saw or heard in there, but it's got nothin? to do with takin? you out to Giff's. I promise you'll get there in one piece. I'm not

30 tami hoag gonna feed you to the 'gators or sell you to white slavers or anything like that. Giff's a friend of mine.' Serena watched him closely, amazed. There was a flush on his high, hard cheekbones. He shuffled his boots on the crushed shell of the parking lot and refused to look at her. He actually looked contrite and embarrassed and? .' .' . well, cute. Lord, what was the matter with her, thinking he was cute? Puppies were cute. Boy scouts were cute. Lucky Doucet was a grown tiger. He probably had boy scouts for lunch and ate puppies for dessert and picked his teeth with prim blond psychologists who saw redeeming qualities where there were none. She shouldn't be thinking any kind thoughts about him. She should be afraid of him? .' .' . but she wasn't. She was obviously losing her grip on sanity. It was this place, this wild, primal place. The air was ripe with scents that invaded the brain. What common sense she had left told her not to trust this man any farther than she could throw a horse, but she couldn't bring herself to walk away from him. 'I'm amazed,' she said at last. 'What'? He gave her a narrow look. 'That I wouldn't sell you to white slavers'? A corner of her mouth lifted in a wry smile as she started toward the dock. 'That you have a friend.'

CHAPTER 3 chanson du terre. if she lived to be a hundred, Serena knew she would never tire of seeing it. It gave her a feeling of security and tradition. Sheridans had lived there since winning it in a card game in 1789. She may not have chosen to live there herself, but it was her heritage. The house stood at the end of an all'e of ? moss-'draped live oak, the broad crowns of which knitted together to form a high bower above the drive. The house was an old Creole chateau, a combination of French Provincial and West Indies in style, with a sloping roof and broad galleries surrounding it on both the upper and lower levels. At first glance the house looked the same as it always had to Serena'graceful, welcoming, impressive without being ostentatious. Then she blinked away the golden glow of her memory and saw it exactly as it was, as if seeing it for the first time ever. The roof was in a state of disrepair, due to heavy spring rains. Shingles were missing and a bright blue tarp had been thrown over a portion near the west dormer. The columns of the upper gallery needed paint and some of the balusters were missing from the handrail, giving the house the appearance of having a wide 'gap-'toothed grin. The

32 tami hoag brick of the ground floor and the wooden siding of the upper story were still painted yellow, but the color had faded with age to the shade of old parchment instead of the ? butter-'yellow of her memory. Memory was flattering, Serena reflected; reality was like seeing a beloved relative who had passed from middle age to old age between visits. She made her way across the broad lawn at a hurried, ? half-'lame walk, her shoes and purse cradled against her. A screen door on the upper level of the house swung wide open and her niece and nephew burst out like racehorses from the starting gate. 'Six-'year-'old Lacey ran shrieking down the wide steps, a blur of blond ringlets and pink frills, with ? eight-'year-'old John Mason right behind her, a bullfrog clutched between his hands and a maniacal grin on his face. 'John Mason, leave your sister alone!' Shelby Sheridan-? Talbot shouted, bustling out onto the gallery. She was a fraction of an inch shorter than Serena with a softer, slightly rounder figure. Her brown eyes were a bit more exotic in shape, and her mouth seemed perpetually set in a petulant frown. Beyond those slight differences they appeared very much the same physically. Shelby looked ready to address the chamber of commerce in a bright yellow suit with a fitted jacket that flared out at the hips in the current style intended to denote femininity. The emerald silk blouse beneath the jacket sported a flamboyant ? candy-'box bow at the throat. Serena felt like a bag lady in comparison. 'Oh, my Lord, Serena!' Shelby exclaimed dramatically. She pressed perfectly manicured hands to her cheeks, displaying a diamond ring big enough to choke a cat and a large 'square-'cut topaz. 'What on earth has happened to you? You look like you've been mugged or run over by a truck or both.' 'Gee, thanks.' Serena trudged up the steps, uncharitably wishing that she had been born an only child. Shelby's tem-

lucky's lady 33 perament was as capricious as the weather'sunny one second and stormy the next. She tended to be silly and frivolous. Her constant theatrics were tiring in the extreme, and she had a way of saying things that was at once innocent and cuttingly shrewd and that made it exhausting to endure a conversation with her. Serena frowned at her as she limped onto the gallery and Shelby inched back, making a moue of distaste, careful not to brush up against her. 'I'm not having a great day here, Shelby, and I don't have time to go over the gory details with you,' Serena said. 'I've got to change and get going. Can you please arrange to have someone pick up my car in town? I left it down by Gau? thier's.' Shelby's expression quickly clouded over from feigned concern to childish annoyance. 'Of course, Serena. I have nothing better to do than run errands for you. My stars, you come home looking like something the cat dragged in, worrying me to a frazzle, and the first thing out of your mouth is an order. Isn't that just like you.' Serena limped past her sister. She seriously doubted Shelby had given a single thought to her absence from the house. Shelby's most pressing concerns in life were her children, her wardrobe, and her prominence in community affairs'which she entered not with an eye to civic duty but social status. She was as pretty and shallow as a lily pond in a Japanese garden. Serena stepped into the house and made her way down the hall, regretting the fact that she didn't have time to take in the ambience of the home she'd grown up in. Aside from one major renovation in the early 1800s and modifications since then to install plumbing and electricity, it had remained largely unchanged over its long history. It was a treasure trove filled with heirlooms and antiques that would make a museum curator's mouth water. But there was no

34 tami hoag time to appreciate the 'cypress-'paneled walls painted a mellow gold or the faded Turkish rugs that spilled 'jewel-'tone colors across the old wood floor. She went directly toward her old bedroom, where earlier in the day she had done nothing more than deposit her suitcases before storming off in a stubborn huff to find a guide. 'Going, did you say'? Shelby questioned suddenly, as if Serena's words had only just managed to penetrate through her sense of indignation. She rushed to catch up, plucking at the sleeve of Serena's rumpled jacket like a child trying to catch its mother's attention. 'Going where'? 'To see Gifford.' 'You can't go now!' Shelby whined in dramatic alarm, following Serena into her room. She positioned herself well within her sister's range of vision and put on her most distressed expression, wringing her hands for added effect. 'You simply can't go now! Why, you only just arrived! We haven't had a chance to chat or anything! I haven't had a chance to tell you a thing about our new house or about how well the children are doing in school or how I may very well be named Businesswoman of the Year by the chamber of commerce. You simply can't go now!' Serena ignored the dictate and began undressing, tossing her ruined clothes into a pile on the floor. She frowned at the suitcase on the bed, knowing there was nothing in it suitable for a swamp. She might have grown up dogging Gifford's heels around the cane fields, but the woman she had become in Charleston had no call to wear jeans or rubber ? knee-'boots. 'And Odille is making a leg of lamb for supper,' Shelby went on. She moved around the room in quick, nervous motions, flitting from place to place like a butterfly, lighting only long enough to straighten a lace doily or fuss with the arrangement of cut flowers in the china pitcher on the carved cherry dresser. 'You can't know the battle I had to

lucky's lady 35 wage to get her to do it. Honestly, that woman is as churlish as the day is long. She has defied me at every turn since Mason and I moved in. And she frightens the children, you know. They think she's some kind of a witch. I don't doubt but what she told them she'd put a spell on them. She's just that way. I don't understand why Gifford keeps her on.' 'He enjoys fighting with her, I imagine,' Serena said, smiling as she thought of the cantankerous Odille facing off with the equally cantankerous Gifford. Odille Fontenot was as homely and hardworking as a mule, a tall rack of bones with the hide of a much smaller person stretched tautly over them. Her skin was as black as pitch, her eyes a fierce shade of turquoise that burned as bright as gas jets with the force of her personality. She was dour and superstitious and full of sass. She had taken over as housekeeper after Serena and Shelby had gone and Mae, the woman who had helped raise them, had retired. Odille was probably well into her sixties by now, but no one could tell by looking at her and no one dared ask. Serena opened her suitcase and pulled out a pair of white ? crop-'legged cotton slacks and a knit top with wide red and white stripes. A quick glance in the beveled mirror above the dresser confirmed her suspicions that her hair was coming down, but there was no time to fuss with it. 'Besides,' she said, her voice muffled as she pulled her top on over her head, 'Odille's brother is Gifford's best friend.' Shelby abruptly stopped rearranging knickknacks on the dresser and looked sharply at her sister's reflection in the mirror. 'Did you say you're going after Gifford? You're going out into the swamp'? Serena zipped her slacks, meeting Shelby's gaze evenly. 'Isn't that what you told me to do'? she said with deceptive calm. Shelby's cheeks flushed beneath her perfect makeup,

36 tami hoag and she glanced away, suddenly uncomfortable. 'I guess I didn't think you'd really do it. I mean, for heaven's sake, Serena, you going out into the swamp!' 'What did you think I'd do, Shelby? Nothing? Did you think I'd just ignore the problem'? Shelby turned and faced her then, her mood changing yet again. 'Ignore it the way I have, you mean'? She narrowed her eyes and pinched her mouth into a sour knot. 'Well, I'm sorry, Serena, if I don't live up to your standards, but I have many other responsibilities. If Gifford wants to go live in the middle of some godforsaken, 'snake-'infested swamp, I can't just drop everything and go after him.' 'Well, you won't have to,' Serena said tiredly. 'Because I'm going.' 'Yes.' Shelby flitted to the French doors that opened onto the gallery. She drew a length of sheer drape through her fingers, then twirled away, tossing her head. 'Won't Giff be tickled to see how you've overcome your fears.' Serena gave her twin a long, level look brimming with anger and hurt, but she made no comment. She refused to. She had never once discussed with Shelby her fear of the swamp or how she had acquired it. The topic had tacitly been declared ? off-'limits years earlier, a dangerous 'no-'man's land that Shelby danced along the edge of when she was feeling spiteful. Serena wasn't even certain her sister realized how potentially volatile the subject was. It wasn't that Shelby was stupid; it was just that she magnified the importance of things that pertained directly to herself and tended to minimize all else. Stepping into a pair of red canvas espadrilles, ? Serena snapped her suitcase shut with a decisive click. She had no time to analyze her sister's psyche even if she had wanted to. She had a boat to catch. 'I'm leaving now,' she said softly, still struggling to con-

lucky's lady 37 trol her temper. 'I don't know when I'll be back. Knowing Gifford, this could take a day or two.' She slung the strap of her carryall over her shoulder and hefted the suitcase off the bed. Without so much as glancing in Shelby's direction, she left the room and headed for the front door. 'Serena, wait!' Shelby called, her voice ringing with contrition as she hurried down the hall. 'I can't wait. Lucky gave me ten minutes and I have no doubt he'll leave without me just to prove his point if I'm not there on time.' 'Lucky'? Shelby's step faltered as she repeated the name. 'Lucky who'? 'Lucky Doucet,' Serena said, bumping the screen door open with her hip. 'He's taking me out to Giff's.' Shelby's face fell and paled dramatically, but ? Serena wasn't looking. 'Good heavens, Serena,' she said breathlessly, scurrying out onto the gallery. 'You can't go off with him. Do you have any idea what people say about him'? 'I can well imagine.' 'Mercy,' Shelby fretted, patting her bosom with one hand and fanning herself with the other, as if she might swoon like a belle of old. 'I don't know how his poor mother can hold her head up in public. And she's just the dearest woman you'd ever care to meet. His younger siblings are perfectly nice with college degrees and I don't know what all, but that'that'Lucky? .' .' . Good heavens, he's nothing but trouble. He's been living like an animal out in the swamp ever since he got out of the army. Folks say he's half crazy.' 'They may be right,' Serena conceded, remembering Lucky's own words to that effect. 'But he was the only person I could find to take me.'

38 tami hoag 'Well, I don't think you should go with him. Who knows what he might do or say'? Serena sighed heavily. 'Shelby, one of us has to go talk to Gifford. You're not willing and Lucky Doucet is the only person able to take me.' Shelby pouted, plumping her lower lip out and batting her lashes. 'Well, I just don't think you should, that's all.' 'Your protest has been duly noted. Now, I'm off. Give my apologies to Odille.' 'Be careful.' Serena paused on the last step at her sister's hesitant admonishment. It was one of the rare shows of concern from her twin that always made her do a double take. Shelby was for the most part completely ? self-'absorbed. She could be silly and frivolous, petty and downright cruel on occasion. Then every once in a while she would suddenly come forth with a small slice of affection, concern, love, offering it like a jewel. The gestures were both touching and unsettling. 'I will be,' Serena said quietly. She crossed the lawn at a hobbling half run once again, suitcase banging against her leg, foot throbbing from the sliver she had yet to remove. She set her sights on the landing and worked unsuccessfully to force Shelby from her mind. All their lives people had remarked to them how special, how close they must feel being twins, what a unique bond they must share. Serena had always taken the comments with sardonic amusement. She and Shelby had never been close. Aside from their looks, they were as different as summer and winter. By Shelby's decree, they had been rivals from birth. Shelby had always seemed to resent Serena for being born at the same time, as if Serena had done so purposely to steal Shelby's glory. In her attempts to avoid rivalry, Serena had drifted further away from her sister,

lucky's lady 39 cultivating separate interests and separate dreams, creating an even wider gap between them. Serena had always regretted the fact that they weren't close. Being the twin of a virtual stranger seemed much lonelier than being an only child. But they were too different, existing on separate planes that never quite seemed to intersect. They shared no telepathy. Sometimes it was almost as if they didn't even speak the same language. The only thing that seemed to bind them was blood and heritage and Chanson du Terre. The elements of their relationship were complex. As a psychologist, Serena might have found it fascinating'had it been someone else's relationship, had she been able to look at it with cool objectivity. But she was too close to the subject; there were too many painful memories binding all the facets together like vines, and she was too afraid of what she might find if she ever did tear all the clinging creepers away, afraid the core might be as shriveled and dead as a sapling that had been smothered by the growth around it. And then what would happen? She would have to let go of the hope she still harbored in a corner of her heart. It was easier for them both to simply leave it alone. As she neared the landing, her niece and nephew came running from the bank, screaming as if the devil were chasing them. They ran past her without slowing down, flying toward the safety of the house and their mother. Lucky stood on the dock smoking a cigarette, one hip cocked and a nasty smile tugging at a corner of his mouth. Serena scowled at him. 'Can't you go ten minutes without terrorizing someone'? 'Your ten minutes were up five minutes ago. You're just lucky I didn't leave without you.' 'That's a matter of opinion,' she grumbled. 'What did

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